A RANDOM flick through a boys’ war comic has set an established storyteller — almost 40 years later — on the exhilarating trail of a feted First World War soldier from the land of his own forefathers.
Cónal Creedon would often scribble the names of youngsters whose weekly Beano or Dandy was held aside for them at the family shop in Cork city’s Devonshire Street. But it was in a May 1979 issue of Victor that a barely-out-of-teenage Creedon stumbled on the story of Michael O’Leary in a weekly feature on real-life heroes called Into the Cannon’s Mouth.
A century ago, O’Leary was lauded the world over for killing eight German soldiers, capturing two more, and at the same time saving his comrades from a perilous situation at Cuinchy on February 1, 1915.
“I grew up in a shop called Inchigeela Dairy, after the village my family came from in the Iveleary area, which comes from ‘Land of the O’Learys’. It was like a ‘Little Iveleary’ in this part of the city, we had the Iveleary bar across the road, and Tadhg Leary’s Cork Arms pub was on the next street,” explained Cónal.
He grew up absorbing names like Art O’Laoire, the writer an tAthair Peadar O’Laoire, and others connected to the area, from overheard stories.
“Then suddenly there’s this O’Leary man in a comic book from Iveleary who’s really famous and I’d never heard of him at all. And being in a comic was the height of fame in those days,” said Cónal.
Asked by Cork’s city librarian Liam Ronayne a few years ago if there was any aspect of the Decade of Centenaries he might be interested in writing about, the award-winning playwright and novelist immediately thought of Michael O’Leary.
The upshot is a history not just of the first Irishman to receive the elusive Victoria Cross medal for bravery during the Great War; but also of the O’Leary clan and their historic tendency to join different warring groups down the centuries, always returning to their roots near where the River Lee rises at Gougane Barra.
When Michael O’Leary came home in the summer of 1915, expecting to surprise his family, he was the one astounded by the reception that greeted him. After a visit to Buckingham Palace on King George V’s insistence, he was paraded through the streets of Cork city before the world’s press pursued him west to his humble roots in the family cottage outside Inchigeela.
“One of the photographs that appeared in The Sphere newspaper is of my grandmother standing with him outside the local post office,” laughs Cónal. The military establishment saw in the gallant Corkman a poster boy for recruitment, and one of the resultant images is incorporated into the front cover of The Immortal Deed of Michael O’Leary.
But he was as reluctant to answer that call as were many young Irish farming men in 1915 to follow him into the trenches. Despite all the revelry — including a song ‘Michael O’Leary VC’ penned by the writer of ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ — he preferred to discuss just about anything else except being a solider.
To him, it was just a job, one he’d wanted since he was growing up around Inchigeela. Even his promotion and assignment to the Connaught Rangers as a recruiting leader failed to suppress the desire in the now 27-year-old O’Leary to be back where the action was, and he eventually managed to do so. He had re-joined the British Army not long after the war began in August 1914, having signed up to the Royal Navy as a teenager, then in 1910 to the Irish Guards.
But he headed to Canada in 1913 arising from physical ailment, and joined a precursor force to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Creedon’s research tells readers of the hero’s form for single-handed acts of bravery, having been honoured for ‘getting his men’ after a two-day hunt for a pair of armed robbers while in Canada.
DESPITE long and elite service in British military attire, after his return to Co Cork to marry in 1919, he sympathised with those involved in the separatist Irish Volunteers movement in the rugged countryside of Iveleary.
While he did not wish to don a new uniform, for now at least, he took a role in helping to swing international opinion towards the campaign for Irish independence. He was working to help create a Canadian version of the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland when the Truce of July 1921 was agreed.
He later ended up back in England where, at one stage, he wore the uniform of a doorman at London’s Mayfair Hotel, about as far as could be imagined from Iveleary’s mountains and lakes.Cónal Creedon, who grew up in the Inchigeela Dairy, has had his plays staged from New York to Shanghai, and his books printed in several languages. He is no stranger to writing history, with several TV documentaries on both the light and the darks sides of Cork’s past to his credit.
But listening to Cónal Creedon talk about his latest work, it’s clear as day that his long journey into the world of a farmer’s son from Iveleary was a very personal one.
The Immortal Deed of Michael O’Leary by Cónal Creedon is published by Cork City Libraries. It is available at city library branches and Cork city and county bookshops for €15.