A Cork Band of Brothers
Updated: Mar 3, 2021
They fought together during the War of Independence, and six years after the truce, the former comrades of 1st Cork Brigade were once again victorious, this time on the soccer pitch. During the 1927-1928 season, Blackrock Rovers won the Munster Junior League and the Tyler Cup, the squad comprising of eleven former volunteers led by Richard ‘Iron Man’ O’Leary.
Richard (Dick) O’Leary was born in Blackrock, Cork on 18 November 1899 to Jeremiah, a fireman and Annie, nee Dawson, whose family according to Richard’s grandson were ‘old IRA’. Ireland was undergoing a transformation as Richard grew from a young boy to a teenager. The first decade of the twentieth century was a zeitgeist moment in Irish history. A group of young, radical nationalists emerged, firm in the belief that they could achieve an Irish Republic. The situation reached a crescendo following a number of critical events. On the 25 November 1892, future Irish President, Douglas Hyde, delivered a lecture before the Irish National Literary titled ‘The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland’. The following year, Conradh na Gaeilge/the Gaelic League was formed. Nationalistic movements were simultaneously occurring on intellectual, athletic, economic, and political fronts.
One such movement was Fianna Éireann. The organisation, founded by Bulmer Hobson and Countess Markieivicz in 1909, was intended to be an Irish nationalist antidote to the many British uniformed youth groups operating in Ireland, such as the Boy Scouts. Tomás Mac Curtain formed the Cork branch of Fianna Éireann in 1911. He subsequently became commanding officer of the Cork Brigade, and in 1920, the first Republican Lord Mayor of Cork. Richard O’Leary joined Na Fianna in 1917, becoming captain of the Blackrock and Ballintemple Sluagh the following year. ‘The Fianna in Cork were subject to Brigade Council I.R.A. and they were strictly confined to a series of activities’. Richard’s pension application reflects this dictum. He participated in company parades, instructions in the use of arms, first aid and signaling. Additional, ‘the Cork Fianna were also involved in a Buy Irish campaign.’ Tomás MacCurtain would direct Fianna scouts to shop for Irish goods which were not currently stocked, thereby ensuring a demand for these products was created.
Shortly after become company captain, Richard O’Leary transferred from the Fianna to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), B company, 2nd Battalion of the 1st Cork Brigade. It was during this period that he had his first foray into a more dangerous world. Some of the activities he was involved in included, manufacturing bombs, guarding of prisoners and various burnings, including Blackrock Royal Irish Constabulary barracks and a number of Loyalist houses, all whilst remaining undetected by Crown forces. However, this scenario was to rapidly change.
On 28 July 1920, ‘Richard O’Leary, 31 The Cottages, Blackrock, Co. Cork’ was found in possession of seditious documents. Defence was fruitless given the incriminating nature of the items; a membership card of the IRA, copy of parade state of B company, and finally, a notice issued to Blackrock Sinn Féin Club threatening penalties against members ‘bombing without taking precautions for the safety of the public.’ On 10 August 1920, it was recommended that Richard be brought for trial by District Court Martial. Two days later, 12 August, Terence MacSwiney, who had become Lord Mayor and commanding officer of the Cork Brigade after the murder of Tomás Mac Curtain, was also arrested.
Richard’s pension application reveals that he took part in the ‘Cork hunger strikes with Terence McSweeney’. He was eventually released, whilst Terence MacSwiney was transferred to Brixton Prison and at 5.40 am on the 74th day of his fast, 24 October 1920, ‘completed his sacrifice for Ireland’. 
Richard returned to the fray with his company and continued his participation in the guerrilla war. He recalls on one occasion, escorting his injured company captain, by fishing boat to a hideaway in Passage. ‘En route we were captured by a Royal Marine Patrol Launch, we were subsequently released on our plea that we were fishermen.’ After over two years of bloody conflict, both the British government and the leaders of the IRA sought to bring the fighting to an end. A truce was agreed in July 1921, followed by negotiations towards an accord.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in London on 6 December 1921 and Dáil Éireann voted to approve the treaty on 7 January 1922. The vote was 64 in favour, 57 against, causing a bitter split in the Sinn Féin party, leading to the Irish Civil War from June 1922 to May 1923. Richard did not participate in the fighting, although he was an ardent supporter of Éamon de Valera and very much against the treaty.
The 1920s was not a happy one for Richard, his older brother, Daniel, died in 1927, and his mother Annie in 1929. Richard, like many of his contemporaries, dissatisfied with the outcome of events, and struggling to find work in the aftermath of independence, immigrated to England. The first government of the Irish Free State, Cumann na nGaedheal, led by William T. Cosgrave was ill equipped in terms of economic expertise. Besides inheriting a common legal system, currency and a variety of other institutions, the fledgling State also acquired an economy evolved from British rule. The six counties of north-eastern Ireland had a bustling industrial economy centred in Belfast, specialising in shipbuilding and textiles. In contrast, in the twenty-six counties of the Irish Free State, the predominant export was the excess of agricultural goods produced, and this was exported to Britain.
Like many Cork men, my own Grandfather included, Richard settled in Dagenham, colloquially known as ‘Little Cork’, where many Irish found work at the Ford factory. There he met his future wife Patricia (Pat) Woods, and they married in 1935, their first born, Donal arriving a year later. With the outbreak of World War II, Richard returned to Blackrock, Cork, residing at 31 Ringmahon Cottages and it is here that Donal, along with his brother, Richard and sister June grew up.
Richard passed on his soccer skills to his eldest son, who played professionally in England with Blackburn Rovers. Donal was a member of the team who were victorious against Liverpool on 31 December 1955. A fortnight earlier, ‘the 19-year old Irish left winger’ was singled out for his efforts, after he ’had two shots turned over the bar by Downie.’
Apart from a brief hiatus, Richard O’Leary lived in Blackrock from childhood to adulthood. He died on 8 April 1973 and is buried in Saint Michael’s Cemetery, Blackrock, Cork, his headstone proudly declaring that he was a member of B company, 2nd Battalion of the 1st Cork Brigade. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.
 Evening Echo, 10 February 1983.  https://www.thefuture.ie/wp-content/uploads/1892/11/1892-11-25-The-Necessity-for-De-Anglicising-Ireland.pdf  Military Archives nominal roles, Fianna Éireann membership series. http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Membership/10/MA-MSPC-FE-5.pdf, p.26.  Damian Lawlor, Na Fianna Éireann and the Irish Revolution, 1909 to 1923 (Offaly, 2008), p. 47.  Military Archives brigade activity. http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Membership/7/A1_B_2%20B%20Company%202%20Batalion%201%20Cork%20Brigade.pdf  War Office: Army of Ireland: Administrative and Easter Rising Records, WO 35/111/24.  Military Service Pension application, Richard O’Leary (private collection).  Telegram from Father Dominic reprinted in Evening Echo, 25 October 1920.  Contained in a letter attached to Pension application, Richard O’Leary (private collection).  With the deaths in 1922 of Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, the new government under the leadership of W.T. Cosgrove were heavily reliant on civil servants in the new Department of Finance. Two key experienced men, both nationalists, Joseph Brennan and J.J. McElligott were pivotal in the economic direction the foundling state took. Both men had close ties with the London treasury and the department took its views into account when advising the Free State government. In 1928 Ireland had its own currency, in name only, as for the next 50 years the Soirstat Pound (founded under 1927 Act) defacto maintained parity with the Sterling Pound (only disengaging when Ireland took the Punt following the joining the EU, Britain kept its currency).  Richard (Dick) O’Leary was an Irish Examiner staff member from 1970 to 1996. June O’Leary married Peter Cox, another talented soccer player who was a member of the International Youth squad in 1966.  https://playupliverpool.com/1955/03/31/liverpool-v-blackburn-rovers-1-2-league-match-2/  Sunday Mirror, 18 December 1955.  Irish Examiner, 10 April 1973.
Many thanks to Richard's grandson David and the O'Leary family for providing me with personal photographs & other archival documents.
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