The Irish Guards Regiment.

A Talk given to the O'Leary Clan Gathering 1999


Talk was given to the 1999 O'Leary Clan Gathering by Mr.Frank Robinson MBE, who is the Secretary of the Irish Guards Association in Dublin.  It was on the occasion when we were celebrating the memory of Michael O'Leary VC and his military exploits.

"I want to talk about the part played by Michael O'Leary VC, and by the Irish Guards in the First World War. First of all a bit of background about the Irish Guards to put it all into perspective.  At the turn of the century there were three Guards Regiments which had the privilege of guarding the Sovereign; the Coldstream Guards, the Scots Guards and the Grenadier Guards. In September 1899 the Army was committed in large numbers to the Boer War in South Africa. This was the first War which was adequately covered by the Press, and it quickly got into the public imagination. At that time there was a large garrison of British Regiments stationed all over Ireland, and many fine Regiments recruited entirely by Irishmen, such as the Royal Munster Fusiliers, the Leinster Regiment, the Connaught Rangers and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.  All Regiments which are sadly no longer with us. These Regiments were recruited and trained in Ireland, and performed with great bravery in many battles of the Boer War, such as the battle of Spion Kop where they were fiercely attacked but held their ground . Queen Victoria followed the actions with close interest and sent a telegram to General Sir Redvers Buller, who was responsible for the Relief of Ladysmith. "I am deeply concerned at the heavy casualties suffered by my brave Irish Regiments……".  There had long been an interest amongst  British Officers of Irish descent who wanted to have the opportunity of serving in a Guards Regiment solely reserved for Irishmen. The Irish Guards was formed on the 1st April 1900. They were the only Regiment in the British Army formed to commemorate the bravery of their fellow countrymen.
Now to come to Michael O'Leary.  He was born here in Inchigeelagh in 1888, the third son of Daniel and Margaret O'Leary.  He first joined the Royal Navy but was invalided out because of Rheumatism of the knees. He then worked for a while as a farm labourer, then in 1910 enlisted in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He soon found himself involved in a daring adventure when he captured two robbers after a chase lasting two days, thus proving himself from the outset as a determined and a brave man. On the onset of the first World War he re-enlisted with the Irish Guards and in November 1914 found himself in the trenches in France, with the rank of Lance-Corporal. In February 1915 the Regiment were involved in a determined attack by German troops at Quinchy. A counter attack launched after a long bombardment of the enemy position, was made by the Coldstream Guards followed more successfully by one by the Irish Guards including Michael O'Leary. In the words of the citation, he made an individual attack and killed five Germans in the first barricade. He then attacked single handed the second barricade which was sixty yards further on and killed or captured five more Germans who were trying to bring a machine gun into action.   Lance-Corporal O'Leary thus virtually captured the entire German defensive position by himself and prevented the rest of the attacking party from being fired on. For his action he was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest possible medal for valour, and was promoted Sergeant on the field of battle. This appeared in the London Gazette on Friday 15th.February 1915. Sergeant Michael O'Leary VC returned to Ireland to help with the recruiting campaign and was feted wherever he went and was very popular with the crowds and was successful in getting people to join the British Army at a time when there was strong opposition to recruiting coming from the Nationalists. He was then commissioned into that fine Regiment, the Connaught Rangers, served in Salonika  and ended the War with the rank of Captain. After the war he met and  married Margaret Hegarty of Ballyvourney, and they were to have six sons and one daughter, and I'm delighted to see that four of those sons are present today. Michael O'Leary returned to Canada and joined the Ontario Province Police as an Inspector, and remained with them until 1925. He then went to the USA and joined the Michigan Central Police but didn't stay long, returning to London to work as a linkman in the Mayfair Hotel in the West End. At the onset of the second World War he rejoined the Army in the Middlesex Regiment and later the Pioneer Corps until he retired in 1945 on Medical grounds with the rank of Major. He then worked in London as a building contractor until his retirement in 1954. Sadly his wife had died the year before. He then lived in London until his death in Whittington Hospital in Highgate in 1961.   He is buried in Paddington Cemetery in Mill Hill, London where there is a memorial to him, and each year on 1st.February to this day there is a wreath laid on his grave by the Irish Guards Association, in memory of a brave and gallant Irish gentleman.

You may be interested to know that the Irish Guards are still in existence today, and are at present serving in Pristina where they led the advance of the KFOR troops into Kosovo.  The Irish Guards are particularly proud of their inheritance as the only Regiment in the British Army formed to commemorate the bravery of their fellow countrymen. I myself was a young recruit in the Irish Guards in 1962. We had a thing called "Shining Parade". Recruits had to shine all their boots and other equipment and while doing this the Sergeant and Officers lectured us about the Regimental History. That's where I first heard about Michael O'Leary. The ethos of the Regiment, the bravery of the soldiers who have gone before you, and the battle honours of the Regiment are inculcated into recruits at a very early stage of their training so that you never forget. I am very proud to have been an Irish Guard.  Proud of my Regiment and the memory of Michael O'Leary.  I am very pleased to have been invited to talk to you today

Men like Michael O'Leary are an integral part of our Irish History despite what has happened since,. He and his other comrades are remembered every year at Remembrance weekend, the weekend nearest 11th.November, when church services are held in Dublin, Cork and many other places throughout the Country to remember the dead of two World Wars and a collection is made for the Irish Poppy Appeal to provide help for those who served, and their dependants.

I served in the Irish Guards from 1962 to 1972.  I then left and joined a firm of Stockbrokers in Dublin. I found that the Irish Guards Association had fallen by the wayside, and together with an enthusiastic retired officer, Colonel William Harvey Kelly, we got the organisation up and running again. Our annual dinner in Dublin has grown from 50 attenders to over 150 now who come from all over the country. I can assure you that Michael O'Leary's old Regiment is still alive and well. It is still Irish and is still doing a good job."