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John O'Leary / John Devoy

A shrine to Irish Paris—the  ex-Hôtel Corneille
John O'Leary (Tipperary, 1830—Dublin, 1907) was a lifelong subversive, whose participation in extra-parliamentary attempts to achieve Irish statehood date back at least to 1848 when, at the age of 18, he partook in an unsuccessful attempt to free Young Ireland prisoners from Clonmel jail. O'Leary also took part in another botched attempt at a rising in Tipperary in 1849, before half-heartedly engaging in legal and medical studies in several universities. 

After spending some time in London, and armed with a relatively comfortable inheritance, O'Leary decided to follow his brother Arthur to Paris in late September 1855 to pursue his medical studies. While on the ferry to France with fellow medical student James O’Brien, O'Leary met the American artist, James Abbot Whistler. This was the beginning of a life-long friendship between O'Leary and Whistler. Indeed, Whistler's fear that his friendship with O'Leary might bring him to the attention of the British police at a time when Fenians and Fenian sympathizers were being round up might explain why Whistler brusquely left London for South America in 1866.

Once they arrived in Paris, O’Leary altered his plans to share lodgings with O’Brien, preferring instead to take lodgings with Whistler in the rue Corneille (6th arrondissement) at the Hotel Corneille, a focal point for impoverished students in the Latin Quarter and a shrine to the Irish presence in Paris. In January 1856, O’Leary moved out of the Hotel Corneille to be closer to his Irish revolutionary pals at the Pension Bonnery on the rue Lacépède (5th arrondissement). Kevin Izod O'Doherty, just released after six years in Van Diemen's Land for his part in the 1848 Young Ireland rebellion, was staying in the pension Bonnery by the time O'Leary arrived and had married O’Leary’s cousin Mary Ann Kelly. Also staying in the Pension was another Fenian, John Martin. John Mitchel, a friend of Martin's, was to end up in the pension Bonnery a few years later. Although they would have other occasions to meet in Paris, James Stephens—who O'Leary had first met in 1846—had just left the city to undertake his '3,000 mile walk' around Ireland by the time O'Leary arrived. John Leonard, who lodged in somewhat more salubrious quarters, was another fellow-agitator that O'Leary met at this time.


As usual, O'Leary did not really apply himself to his medical studies in Paris and left the city for London in late 1856. He was back in the French capital in March 1859. He stayed there briefly with his brother Arthur before heading up to Boulogne-sur-Mer where, together with fellow Fenian, Thomas Clarke Luby, he arranged to meet James Stephens, freshly back from the U.S. and loaded with American Fenian money.


 30, rue Mermoz
Back in Paris, Luby, Stephens and O'Leary took lodgings together at a second-floor flat at 30, rue Montaigne (now rue Mermoz, 8th arrondissement), in the same street that Miles Byrne lived at the time. O'Leary to the U.S. to raise funds for the Irish Republican Brotherhood, but was back by September 1859, when he stayed again in rue de Montaigne, along with Stephens and other Fenian refugees who "became discontented and, in a sense, demoralised by the rather aimless life they were leading".


Although the two great Fenians are buried side by side in Glasnevin cemetery, O'Leary held a rather jaundiced view of Stephens, writing that "there was a certain flabbiness of moral fibre about him which…always was distasteful to me. Charity and humility were quite left out of his composition". John Leonard also quarreled with Stephens, and although the two men made their peace with each other, O'Leary believes there was "very little love lost between them up to the end".


By this stage, John Mitchel had arrived back in Paris. Mitchel met Stephens. But, according to O'Leary, "the two men seem to have been mutually repellent from the beginning." O'Leary had breakfast one morning in Mitchel's first lodgings, a small hotel in rue Faubourg Saint Honore (8th arrondissement). During the course of the meal, both Martin and Mitchel "showed the most decided animus against James Stephens". But O'Leary himself did not come away with a particularly favourable impression of Mitchel either and seems to have reached some grudging understanding of the increasingly decrepit Stephens who he never ditched entirely.


O'Leary stayed several months in Paris, seeing Mitchel and Stephens frequently, but "not greatly liking the present situation or the future outlook". On Whistler’s suggestion, O'Leary left for London in January 1860, a few months after Thomas Clarke Luby. O'Leary, Stephens and Luby all ended up in prison for treason in 1865. Stephens escaped and was back in Paris by March 1866, while O'Leary and Luby were released from prison in England and banished from the UK in January 1871. Luby and O'Leary made for the Continent, but rather than heading straight for Paris, they had to hole up in Antwerp for a number of months because of the Prussian siege of Paris and the Paris Comune uprising.


 Le Grand Véfour
After a couple of months in Paris, O'Leary and Luby travelled on to the U.S. in July 1871, but O'Leary was swiftly disillusioned by the factionalism of the Fenian movement in America (which was not helped by the arrival of James Stephens in the guise of an agent for a Bordeaux wine firm). Forbidden under the terms of his prison release to set foot back in Ireland, O'Leary travelled back to Paris in January 1872, where he was to spend the next 13 "lonely and frustrating years". By November of that year, he was living at 11, rue Brochant (17th arrondissement), where some time later he handed over the keys of his flat to the destitute James Stephens and his wife for a while. O'Leary was to provide occasional succour to the hard-up Stephens for several years—although in 1876 he wrote to Clan na Gael in New York that he would do everything to restore the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) but would not support Stephens as leader.


By 1875, O'Leary had moved back again to that temple to the Irish presence in Paris, the hotel Corneille (6th arrondissement), where Samuel Beckett, John Millington Synge, James Joyce and William Butler Yeats were all to stay in the following decades. Here O'Leary was to stay for the rest of his time in Paris. O'Leary apparently led a quite frugal existence, eating lunch at the cafe Voltaire on the place de l’Odéon, just opposite the Hôtel Corneille, and indulging in his lifelong passion for book collecting. He renewed his friendship with John Leonard and went with him to the St. Patrick's Day banquets at Le Grand Véfour in the Palais Royal (1st arrondissement) in 1874 and 1875. With funds tight, O'Leary toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist, but, in the words of biographer Marcus Bourke, as in previous endeavours, "once again his lack of energy seems to have got the better of him", although he did some work for Irish nationalist newspapers in the U.S.


 The Hôtel des Missions Etrangères
In early 1879, O'Leary was involved in planning a secret meeting of the IRB's Supreme Council in Paris. Stars of the IRB movement who attended this meeting after a sea voyage from the U.S. included the so-called “greatest of the Fenians”, John Devoy (Greenhils, Co. Kildare, 1842—Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1928) together with Michael Davitt, the founder of the Land League. They stayed at the Hôtel des Missions Etrangères at 118-120, rue du Bac (6th arrondissement). This establishment was chosen, according to Devoy, “because the members of the Irish Papal Brigade had stopped there on their way back to Italy a few years previously”. Devoy himself had stayed at this religious boarding house, which he described as a haunt of priests and poor aristocrats, when he was in Paris in 1861 to join the French Foreign Legion. This meeting is regarded as marking the parting of the waves between the proponents of physical force on the Council and those more in favour of exploring constitutional paths to Irish independence, the so-called ‘New Departure’.
During this Paris trip, Devoy got to know O'Leary, whose lodgings at the Hôtel Corneille he describes as "the room of a bookworm who did little else than read". Devoy bemusedly tells us that O'Leary "had no social life in Paris" and that he was a "poor judge of French politics...He was opposed to all kinds of extremists and was not either a Republican or an anti-Republican". Strangely for an icon of Irish nationalism, Devoy further tells us that Stephens "had no positive political opinions at all, except that he wanted Ireland to be free".
The 1879 split in the IRB led to its swift decline until its revival in about 1907 by Bulmor Hobson and Thomas Clarke. O'Leary tried to revive the IRB travelling to New York in June 1880. But his efforts were to no avail. Despite a further trip to New York in May 1883 and despite a "mysterious meeting" with Charles Stewart Parnell in Paris in February 1881, O'Leary's efforts in support of Irish nationalism came to little. Increasingly lonely, isolated from events back home, and with money from his inheritance running, O'Leary moved back to Dublin in 1885, where he was to be joined six years later by his alter ego, James Stephens.




Select Bibliography

Recollections of Fenians and Fenianism (1896)

John O’Leary


John O’Leary, a Study in Irish Separatism (1967)

Marcus Bourke


James McNeill WhistlerBeyond the Myth (1994)

Ronald Anderson and Anne Koval


Recollections of an Irish Rebel (1929)

John Devoy


“Irish Rebel–John Devoy and America’s Fight for Ireland’s Freedom (1998)

Terry Golway


“The Life Story of an Old Rebel” (1910)

John Denvir