Pádraig Ó Laoire or Patrick O’Leary was at one time a well-known member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an influential 19th century Irish revolutionary organisation popularly known as the Fenians. However there is some confusion about his identity in modern sources. There is a rare mention of him over on the wonderful Come Here To Me, a group-blog dedicated to the cultural history of Dublin, during a discussion of a rather famous church in the capital:
“My interest in John’s Lane Church comes not from the architectural history of the building, but rather a nickname the church has acquired in its own community, spoken of as the ‘Fenian Church’. This nickname comes from the fact many Fenians worked at the building site, such as the Pagan O’Leary, Denis Cromien, Dan Gleason, Michael Lawless and Michael Malone. Ironically however, so too did a man named Pierce Nagle, a comrade in their eyes but a secret informer who would send them to penal servitude.
Patrick O’Leary who worked on the site, known as the Pagan O’Leary, is a fascinating character in the history of Irish republicanism. Originally from County Cork, O’Leary spent some time in America, studying for a priesthood in the Catholic Church and even fighting in the Mexican War. Active within the Fenian Brotherhood having settled in New York, he would develop intense anti-Catholic views, and as Bridget Hourican has noted “he hated England and the Roman Catholic church with equal intensity, arguing that after driving out the English, Ireland should revert to the old paganism of Fionn mac Cumhaill”. As a result of these views, the name Pagan O’Leary was bestowed upon him by contemporaries.”
It is now very hard to find much trace of Patrick O’Leary (though pubs and restaurants named “Pagan O’Leary” seem to proliferate amongst Irish communities in the United States and Australia). However there are some references to him in John Devoy’s “Recollections of an Irish Rebel” (published New York, 1929) which seem to be the same person:
“‘No account of Fenianism in the British army would be complete without a sketch of “PAGAN” O’LEARY, who was the first man appointed by James Stephens to take charge of the work. The “Pagan” was a unique character. A fanatic on the question of Irish Nationality and Roman interference in Irish affairs, he was generous and charitable to a fault, and under the disguise of stern looks and harsh words carried a heart as tender as a woman’s. His “Paganism” was only a distorted kind of Nationalism.
His real name was PATRICK O’LEARY and he was born in or near Macroom -“in old Ibh Laoghaire by the Hills” – about 1825 or 1826. His age can only be estimated by the fact that in 1846 when the Mexican War broke out, he was a very young man studying for the priesthood in an American Catholic college, the walls of which he scaled to enlist in a regiment going to the front. He took part in several battles and was hit in one of them by a spent ball at the top of the forehead. It left an indention that was quite visible and easily felt with the fingers. This undoubtedly affected his mind to the extent of making him very eccentric.
His eccentricity took the form of a sort of religious mania. He hated Rome and England with equal intensity, and his queer notion was that after driving out the English, Ireland should return to the old Paganism. He was not really a Pagan, but an anti-Roman Catholic. He never talked of the old Pagan worship or beliefs, but was eloquent in extolling the superiority of Tir na nÓg over the Christian Heaven. He did not seem to doubt the existence of either of them and talked as if a man could make his own choice as to where he would go after death.'”
However there is also a very sad mention by Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl, of a John Murphy the nom de guerre of John “Pagan” O’Leary who seems to have been a different person, a noted contributor to the Irish People, the Dublin-based revolutionary newspaper.
“Among the prisoners at Mountjoy in 1868 was one old man – John Murphy – between 60 and 70 years of age, who has been condemned as one of the writers in the Irish People. In his medical report the doctor of the gaol, Dr. Robert McDonnell, said that he found Murphy, generally known as “Pagan O’Leary,” in his cell on one of the coldest days of the coldest winters known. He had no bed, no bed-clothes – nothing between himself and the cold floor. He had for covering only a rug of a few ounces weight. He was shivering with the exceeding cold. He had the appearance, said the physician, of a man stricken with Asiatic cholera; his face had the same leaden hue. He complained he was cold – cold to the very bones. And why this torture of an old man of nearly 70 years? For some serious fault, a gross breach of discipline, “brutal assault” on a warder? Not a whit. Merely because the old man had declared he was of “no religion” but a “Pagan”! But, it will be urged, what proof is there of this? The proof is given us by Lord Mayo himself. In the House of Commons on Monday, May 20th, Mr. P. A. Taylor asked the Chief Secretary for Ireland-
“Whether it was the fact that a prisoner in Mountjoy Prison, who declared himself a Unitarian, was ordered by the Governor to select his religion as Anglican, Roman Catholic, or Presbyterian, and that on his declining to do so he was sentenced to the penal cell, with bread and water diet?
“Lord Mayo said he presumed the question referred to the case of John Murphy, alias Pagan O’Leary, who was received at Mountjoy Prison on the 31st July, 1865, nearly three years ago. The facts of the case were these. The Governor applied for instructions under very peculiar circumstances, in fact the only case of the kind that has ever occurred in Ireland. The convict said he was of no religion, and he never attended any place of worship. On being transferred from one prison to another he said he was a Pagan – (laughter) – and refused to be instructed in religions subjects of any kind. The Director, being a military officer, ordered him to select his religion. (Much laughter.) The prisoner said he did not believe in any religion, and therefore would not select any. (Continued laughter.) The Director ordered him to be put on penal diet for three days. (Renewed laughter and cries of “Oh!”) On the 4th of August, two days afterwards, he was sent to the hospital, where he was kept for five days. After he left he was again kept on penal diet for three days – (“Oh! oh”) – and he then selected the Roman Catholic religion. (Loud laughter.) Penal diet was not bread and water, although it was much lower than the ordinary prison diet.”
And at this infamous tale the British House of Commons uttered no indignant protest, but roared with brutal laughter. If perchance a son of that old man still hears that laughter ringing in his ears and has become a dynamiter, who of us shall dare to blame him? Lord Mayo, in his answer to Mr. Taylor, spoke of “penal” and “ordinary diet.” Let us see for a moment what this diet was. The official diet-table looks terrible enough, but even of this an English gentleman wrote in January, 1870:
“Good God! it one saw the horrible stuff furnished to the prisoners. …. The stuff given for cocoa was, and is, such a compound that they could not touch it all the summer. No human tooth was ever made that could masticate the old mule they got for beef, nor human stomach ever made that could digest it. Besides, the quantity is so small that a child could scarcely live on it; but when you take quantity and quality into account, imagination alone can fix the result. But the worst of all is the horrible cooking and the manner of serving up. [Here follow details too disgusting for publication.] ….They have got untanned skin, with hair, snails, and snail-boxes in their food. It is only under danger of actual starvation that they can eat it. You may judge of the quantity allowed when I tell you that the prisoners eat their soap, candles, and gutta-percha urinals and drinking cups. Two officers have to stand over every man on Saturday evening, when he is oiling his boots, to prevent him from drinking the oil.”
The “soup” mentioned in the table below was “made from the shins of beef of which the fleshy portions have been cut away to a great extent for other purposes, and only of the shreds and bones, etc., which are generally tainted before they are boiled, and which, when cooked, send forth an offensive stench, and in which Mr. Mulcahy has found entrails of fowls, and on one occasion a mouse and other vermin. Suet generally rancid.” The gruel or porridge was a mixture so horrible that “several of the prisoners, from inability to use it, were left for over Two Years to sup on six ounces of bread and a pint of water”! No wonder it was only “under danger of starvation” that the prisoners could eat this food. Some, indeed, could not eat it and died.”
More is told of John O’Leary here.
I suspect the term “Pagan” was applied to both O’Learys, whether by accident or design. I also wonder if the original Patrick “Pagan” O’Leary was the author behind the popular Irish-American slogan Ní Bóna Ná Coróin “Neither Collar Nor Crown”, a rejection of servility to either Church or State. A good summation of the Fenian attitude is the a-political English language poem Bona na Croin, or more correctly Ní Bóna Ná Coróin, written by the poet Robin Herne and published in his 2012 collection Bard Song.
Bona na Croin
Neither your collar nor crown
Shall I wear, my nose not brown,
Nor I some clown in your court,
In chains brought, a wolf to town.
By no oath bound to your King,
To my Gods alone I sing,
Grey shadow hiding from sight
To keep the rite from waning.
In red gold you dress these slaves,
What throne can forget Nine Waves?
In deep caves our flame I shield,
Never to yield to such knaves.
Collars serve to rein dogs in,
Quell their nerve with shades and sin.
Wild wolf’s kin such bangles scorn,
Free-born I stay, son of Fionn.
My brothers hunted, slain, skinned.
Yet still my cries ride the wind,
Numbers thinned, but still we wait,
For your hate, we have not sinned.
Now the lone hunters take heed,
Upon the Great Stag we feed,
Blood for mead. His death our life,
Ends this strife, stirs this dried seed.
The old packs come together,
Ties that fear cannot sever,
Endeavour in pride to stand
In the Wolf Land, forever