b. 29/09/1890 Inchigeela, County Cork, Ireland. d. 01/08/1961 Islington, London
Michael John O’Leary (1890-1961) was born at Kilbarry Lodge, Inchigeelagh, near Macroom, County Cork, Ireland on 29th September 1888. His father was Daniel O’Leary, an agricultural labourer and staunch Irish Nationalist. His mother was Margaret nee Lucy. His parents had married on 24th August 1886 at Inchigeelagh Parish Church. Michael had two brothers (one died in infancy) and two sisters. He was educated at Kilbarry National School and was then employed as a labourer on his father’s farm.
Michael served in the Royal Navy as a Stoker on HMS Vivid from 1909 and was invalided out on 29th April 1910 with rheumatism in his knees. Rather surprisingly for a man suffering from rheumatism, he enlisted himself in the Irish Guards on 2nd July 1910 and joined for duty at Caterham on the 7th. He gained the Third Class Certificate of Education in 1912, and posted to the Depot in February 1913. Shortly afterwards, he emigrated to Canada, where on 2nd August 1913, he joined the Royal North-West Mounted Police Force in Regina, Saskatchewan. He was posted to Battleford, Saskatchewan. Following a two hour running gun battle he captured two robbers and was awarded a gold ring, which he wore for the rest of his life. His Superintendent became concerned about his health following the incident and transferred him into the Depot Division in Regina in May 1914.
Michael was granted a free discharge on 22nd September 1914 and re-joined the Irish Guards on 22nd October. Having been posted to the 1st Battalion, he went to France on 22nd November and was appointed unpaid Lance Corporal on 5th January 1915, shortly before his VC action at Cuinchy.
On the 1st February, 1915 at Ciunchy, France, when forming one of the storming party which advanced against the enemy's barricades he rushed to the front and himself killed five Germans who were holding the first barricade, after which he attacked a second barricade, about 60 yards further on, which he captured, after killing three of the enemy and making prisoners of two more. Lance-Corporal O'Leary thus practically captured the enemy's position by himself and prevented the attacking party from being fired upon.
He was promoted to Sergeant and was presented with his VC (gazetted 18th February 1915) by King George V in a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace on 22nd June 1915. He was the first Irish VC of the Great War and the first ever in the Irish Guards. An O’Leary Fund was set up for widows and orphans of Irish troops and was he warmly received at a massive recruiting drive in Hyde Park in July 1915. George Bernard Shaw wrote a play based on his actions called “O’Flaherty VC”. Sadly, on his return to Ireland, his father was not so complimentary about his actions. Michael was also awarded the Order of St George 3rd Class (Russia) on 25th August 1915.
On 23rd October 1915, he was granted a regular commission in the 2nd Connaught Rangers and was involved in recruiting in Dublin. On 2nd February 1916, he was attached to 30th Reserve Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers at Catterick for recruiting duties until he was posted to 3rd Connaught Rangers at Kinsale on 25th August. He returned to the front at Salonika on 11th January 1917 and joined No 1 Entrenching Battalion. He was promoted to Lieutenant on 1st July 1917 and moved to Egypt in October. In January 1918, he attended flying training at Heliopolis hoping to join the RFC. Sadly, bouts of malaria from September 1917 saw him found unsuitable for the RFC. He was recommended for a return to Britain in July 1918 by the medical board. He joined the 3rd Connaught Rangers at Dover and was discharged to the Reserve in June 1920.
Michael married Margaret (Greta) nee Hegarty in 1919 at Ballyvourney, near Macroom, County Cork and they had six sons and a daughter. They lived initially in Ireland, before on 4th March 1921, Michael returned to Canada where he worked as a lecturer and worked for a publishing company. He then became a licence inspector in the Ontario Provincial Police, and then a detective sergeant at Bridgeburg, Ontario with the Michigan Central Railway Police. He had hoped that his family would eventually join him in Canada, but the costs of passage were too high. Eventually Michael returned to Ireland and became a British Legion poppy factory packer and then head linkman at the Mayfair Hotel, London.
In World War Two, he was appointed Lieutenant in the Middlesex Regiment and was Camp Commandant of HQ III Corps and went to France with the BEF. He was invalided home prior to Dunkirk due to diabetes. He was transferred into the Pioneer Corps in 1941 and then served on the staff of POW Camps in the south of England and disability forced him to relinquish his commission.
Returning to civilian life, he was employed in the building trade until retiring in 1954. At the VC Centenary Review in Hyde Park in June 1956, a 64-year-old wheelchair bound attendant at an Uxbridge theatre, Thomas Meagher, impersonated O’Leary. He spoke to the Queen, who was concerned about his health. Several other VC recipients were suspicious but didn’t want to embarrass Her Majesty.
Michael died at Whittington Hospital, Islington, London on 2nd August 1961 and was buried in Mill Hill Cemetery, London. In addition to his VC, he was awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19 with Mentioned in Despatches oak leaf, 1939-45 Defence Medal, 1939-45 War Medal, George VI Coronation Medal 1937, Elizabeth II Coronation Medal 1953 and the Russian Order of St George 3rd Class. His medals were loaned to the Irish Guards by the family in 1962 and were purchased by the Regiment in 1982. They are held by the Irish Guards at Wellington Barracks, London.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: IRISH GUARDS RHQ, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: MILL HILL CEMETERY, LONDON.
Michael O'Leary's memorial stone at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin (Feb 2015)
Cemetery Plan courtesy of Kevin Brazier SECTION G-3, GRAVE 1930
Michael O'Leary's medals on display at the Irish Guards RHQ, London (Thomas Stewart).
Royal Canadian Mounted Police Museum, Regina, Canada
War Illustrated, 28th July 1917
War Illustrated, 28th July 1917
Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin (Thomas Stewart)