By Aisling Meath
A LITTLE over a hundred years ago, Michael O’Leary from Inchigeela was lauded by newspapers far and wide as being the first Irishman to receive the Victoria Cross for bravery.
A century later, the story of his life, the landscape and mystery of Inchigeela, the legends of the O’Leary clan and their homeland of Iveleary are being recalled as far away as China.
Cork writer Conal Creedon’s book The Immortal deed of Michael O’ Leary has already received a stunning review in the Shanghai Daily, the only daily English newspaper in China.
Cork and Shanghai are twin cities, and as such there are strong cultural ties between the two.
Conal’s plays were previously aired on the Chinese stage and acquired very favourable reviews from the critics. His numerous visits there include a tour with poet Jerry Murphy and another with singer songwriter John Spillane.
He has read at Fudan University, Leaun Library and the People’s University Shanghai and his documentaries have been screened at the Irish Pavilion in Shanghai.
His book tells the story of Michael O’Leary from Iveleary who joined the British army in 1910 and killed eight German soldiers, was awarded for his bravery and became a poster boy for recruitment.
When he arrived home in Macroom with his newly-awarded Victoria Cross pinned to his chest, it was reported that his father Daniel chased him out of the house upon learning his victims were German and not English.
Ireland was still under British occupation during WWI and the desperation of their circumstances found 210,000 Irishmen signing up to join the British army.
Conal describes a conversation where Liam de Roiste asks a man from Iveleary whether Michael O’Leary had been successful in raising recruits from that locality to go and fight in WWI.
‘No indeed, Sir’ was the reply. ‘Neither he nor his father would advise anyone here to join the English army.’
In his review, journalist Xu Quin in The Shanghai Daily writes: ‘He was as reluctant to answer that call as most young Irish farming men were in 1915. To him, it was just a job, one he wanted since he was growing up around Inchigeela, where so many hungry families depended on this source of revenue to survive.
‘The upshot is a history, not just of the first Irishman to receive the Victoria Cross medal for bravery, but also the O’Leary clan – their historic tendency to join different warring groups down the centuries, making it a personal journey ‘home” to a stream of names, dates and events.’
Home for Conal was located in a ‘spaghetti-bowl’ of streets in the heart of Cork city. His family shop was the Inchigeela Dairy, first opened by his grandfather Connie Creedon and run by his grandaunt Julia Cotter as a city outlet selling dairy products, and an in-season selection of garden fresh vegetables from the home farms of Ivelear, Inchigeela and surrounding townlands. Reminiscent of Little Italy in New York, this area of Cork, where three streets meet, was known as ‘Little Iveleary’.
Conal constructs vivid images of his inner-city neighbourhood. The shop was a place where Iveleary exiles would meet, sometimes conversing in Irish. Yet Michael O’Leary’s name was never mentioned.
The Shanghai Daily noted that ‘When [O’Leary] came home in the summer of 1915 he was paraded through the streets of Cork in Ireland, before the press pursued him west to his humble roots outside the Inchigeela parish of Iveleary’.
An old photograph of Conal’s grandmother, Nora Cotter, postmistress of Inchigeela, seen greeting Michael outside the post office in 1915 was the spark that lit the fire of Conal’s own personal odyssey to discover his Iveleary roots.
‘Something about that photo sparked my imagination. I had never known my grandmother; she had been long dead before I was born. In my mind’s eye I had always imagined her as an elderly woman posed and poised in the rigid Victorian manner of her time. It was fascinating to see her as a young girl on the cusp of womanhood. She seemed impishly coy in the presence of the young brave soldier – her demeanour was naturalistic and curious, maybe even a little flirtatious.’ Conal’s book ensures that these West Cork stories and characters will be remembered on a global stage and eternally immortalised.
The Immortal Deed of Michael O’ Leary is published by Cork City Libraries.