The man who inspired a song by the Long Way to Tipperary author was even immortalised in The Victor comic, writes Aisling Meath
IN 1979 Cónal Creedon was flicking through the The Victor comic in the family shop, The Inchigeelagh Dairy in Cork city. While reading a feature called ‘The true story of Men at War’, he was surprised at the dialect in the speech bubble over the hero’s head:
‘Share that amongst ye, ye spalpeens! Tis plenty more I have in me magazine.’
‘Then Mick O’Leary took off on a solo run charging headlong across the sepia toned pages of the comic book,’ he recalled.
The true-life hero of the tale was Michael O’Leary, a farmer’s son, from the townland of Cooleen, in the district of Inchigeelagh, in the parish of Iveleary, and in the barony of West Muskerry, in the county of Cork, of course!
On June 22nd 1915, O’Leary was awarded the Victoria Cross by King George V at Buckingham Palace. He received this prestigious accolade for single-handedly charging and destroying German barricades near the French village of Tduring WWI, killing eight German soldiers.
He became a poster boy for the recruitment drive for Volunteers to join the Irish Guards, while still maintaining his nationalist sympathies. The political complexities in Ireland during that era are well documented in the book The Immortal Tale of Michael O’Leary, written by Cónal, which was recently launched at Cork City Library.
The author wondered how he had never heard of this man when he was growing up in ‘Little Iveleary’ at Three Points Corner in Cork. ‘There I was sitting in the Inchigeelagh Dairy [on Devonshire St], nearby was the Iveleary bar, and Tadgh O’Leary’s just down the road.’ His father, Con, was an Iveleary man.
‘Iveleary people came to the shop for the taste of home, the milk, eggs, butter, cream, but most of all they came to talk,’ said Cónal.
Cónal had been weaned on songs and stories from Iveleary where the name O’Leary is known for over a thousand years. Songs such as The Boys of Kilmichael and My Inchigeelagh Lass were familiar, but he had not yet heard of the song Michael O’Leary VC recorded in 1915 by Jack Jones, author of It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.
It was to be several years before he found himself revisiting the story of the famous hero that would bring him on a personal voyage into the very heart of Iveleary.
‘The most amazing thing about writing this book was the fascinating journey that took me to the history of the O’Leary clan and realising how powerful they were. The very name Iveleary – Uibh Laoghaire – means land of the O’Leary’s.’
‘This green and leafy valley is a land where history and story go hand in hand, fact and fiction seem to dovetail seamlessly and the spiritual and the natural compliment each other without contradiction or contrivance,’ he writes in the book.
This poetic description of the land of Iveleary is just a glimpse into the beauty of the narrative landscape to be found within the book.
It is also full of beautiful pictures and illustrations of the West Cork area.
Over ten years ago, Cónal happened to visit his cousin Joe in Inchigeelagh, who showed him a photo from The Sphere newspaper dated 1915. There was Michael O’Leary VC in full uniform standing outside Inchigeelagh Post Office, being greeted affectionately by Nora Cotter, the postmistress (see above).
‘That’s our grandmother,’ Joe told him. And so the ink splatters and a story began.
The Immortal Deed of Michael O’Leary by Cónal Creedon is published by Cork City Libraries, and is available to purchase in bookshops throughout Cork city and county, at €15.