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John Patrick Leonard – Our man in Paris

At a time when Spike Island was being carved up and commandeered for the defence of the British Empire, a curious thing happened.  A child was born on this tiny island in the early 19th century, one of just a few thousand who can claim such a distinction.  This infant boy, surrounded by the mighty military efforts of the world’s largest Empire, would go on to be a vocal critic of that Empire and play a significant role in Irish nationalist affairs. 

He would even make a permanent mark on Irish history, one that will last as long as the nation, by contributing to the adoption of our national flag.  

John Patrick Leonard – Irishman extraordinaire in Paris

On 12th of October, 1814, John Patrick Leonard was born on Spike Island, the result of his father’s employment as an engineer working on nearby Haulbowline Island.  His father passed away when John was just four so he was raised by his uncle P.J Leonard, an Irish Christian Brother who founded schools in Cork.  As a teenager the young John was sent to school in France at Boulogne-Sur-Mer, where a lifelong love affair with the nation began. 

He was back and forth between the countries until he settled in Paris in 1834, first studying medicine at which he failed miserably.  He moved into studying English language and literature and became a teacher, at which he fared little better, if the 1844 inspectors report from his school in Sens is to be believed. 

He was described as having an;

Offhand manner.  Mr Leonard is a feckless man and lover of disorderly pleasures.  Inconsistent and prodigious with his money, he is not held in much esteem.  Often, pupils that are docile with other teachers show him no respect and partake in acts of indiscipline in his presence.  This teacher lacks authority and leadership”. 

Clearly if John Patrick Leonard was going to make a positive impression on his country of choice, it would not be in the field of academia.


Aerial view of Spike Island.

Fortunately for Irish interests his passions and talents lay elsewhere.  Despite his modest station, Leonard was extremely skilled at networking among France’s elite, and he curried favour with some of the leading lights of French society.  Foremost among his friends was Marshall Patrice MacMahon and Adolphe Thiers, both future Presidents of France.  He counted the Bishop of Orleans as a close friend, and no doubt a useful ally. 

Maximising these connections, Leonard was endlessly generous with his time in the advancement of Irish Nationalism.  He became known as the unofficial Irish Ambassador in Paris for the remaining decades of his life.  He petitioned the French government to intervene in the deportation of the leaders of Ireland’s 1848 rebellion, and welcomed many of them to France. 

This included rebels like John Mitchel, who he befriended and accompanied to present an Irish sword to the French President in 1860.  He stood in for Mitchel at his daughters funeral as the exiled nationalist had returned to America when she died. 

leonard became acquainted with and assisted the aging United Irish exiles like William Corbet and William Smith O’Brien, and just as readily gave his time to the new breed of Young Irelanders – Charles Gavin Duffy, John O’Leary, John Devoy and James Stephens to name a few. They were a ‘who’s who’ of 19th century Irish rebellion, the leaders of Ireland’s opposition to British rule.

All found a friend and ally in John Leonard.  Paris had become something of a university of revolution for Irish nationalists, many of them exiled from Ireland by the authorities.  In Paris they could converse freely without looking over their shoulders, not something they could do back in Ireland. 

Nationalist John Mitchel – Friend of John Patrick Leonard who was also connected to Spike Island

The Emperor Napoleon III considered their presence useful, something of a bargaining chip with the British, so the Irish were viewed with a mixture of fascination and trepidation.  John Patrick Leonard was their focal point and this included Thomas Francis Meagher, who visited France where Leonard brought him to the cafes and restaurants of Paris, facilitating meetings. 

It was with Meagher and another nationalist, William Smith O’Brien, that Leonard made his arguably his largest enduring contribution to the Irish cause.  Meagher and O’Brien were in France to study the learning’s of their revolutions and Leonard entertained them as guests.  He took the duo to the theatre to see ‘Phedre’, a French tragedy involving the lead actress singing a stirring version of the Marseillaise, while waving the French tri-colour. 

Meagher was said to be most moved and saw the value of the symbolism. Prior to returning to Ireland, Meagher was presented with a green, white and gold tri-colour, woven by a group of sympathetic French women at the behest of Leonard.

The modern Irish tri-colour, which replaced an all green flag with a harp at its centre, had received its first public outing by Thomas Francis Meagher just a few months before his arrival to France, as it waved over the Mall in Waterford for a number of days before being removed. 

The exact events leading to the presentation of the flag are sketchy.  Did Meagher request the flag be made, buoyed by the reaction to its first outing in Waterford and moved by the visuals of the French flag flying during his trip to the theatre with Leonard? Was this a request to which John Patrick Leonard responded to in fine style? 

Or had John Leonard heard about Meagher’s use of the flag in Waterford just a few months before his arrival, which prompted him to produce the significant and poignant gift in advance? 

Whatever the circumstances, Meagher put the flag to good use.  He brought the flag to Ireland and unveiled it at a meeting with fellow Young Irelander’s, eliciting a very positive response. John Mitchel proclaiming he wished to see it become our national flag, though he did not live to see it. Meagher would tell those present;

‘The white in the centre signifies a lasting truce between Orange and Green.  I trust that beneath its folds the hands of the Irish Catholic and the Irish Protestant may be clasped in generous brotherhood’.

The Irish national flag, often called the tricolour.

Tri-colours of various arrangements had been recorded in Ireland as early as 1830, when they were used in cockades and rosettes – knotted ribbons and pinned badges. But the event of the green, white and gold being unfurled in Waterford and the positive reaction of Meagher’s unveiling of the striking silk tri-colour, received from Leonard and paraded at the meeting in Dublin on his return to Ireland cemented its place.

As he had for decades before and after, John Patrick leonard was pulling unseen strings, waging his own soft war and making an impact on behalf of the Irish nation.

Paris in the 19th century, where Leonard assisted the Irish cause in any way he could.

His involvement into the Irish national flag was just a small part of his wider accommodation of United Irishmen, and these actions were far from his only contributions to the cause.  Leonard wrote often for the Nation and the Cork Examiner, he founded an Irish colony of more than 100 souls in French Algeria, and researched the lineage of the exiled ‘wild geese’, so they could claim French assistance.

He led a group called the ‘Anciens Irlandais’, who among other activities organised a lively Saint Patrick ’s Day event in France.  He promoted Irish manufacturers and industry, and translated several English and Gaelic texts on the Irish subject into French to further interest in Irish history. 

It was a sad day for Irish influence aboard when John Patrick Leonard died on August 6th, 1889, his drive and verve irreplaceable. He was buried at Ballymore on Great Island, Cobh, within shouting distance of his former Spike Island home.  

French historian Janick Julienne described Leonard as “the central, unavoidable character in Franco-Irish relations,”. 

The Irish and French flags.

This is as accurate a statement as can be uttered about this former Spike Islander, who is remembered fondly as the Irish flag is raised over Spike Island each and every day, for the part he played in its adoption and the eventual establishment of Irish independence. John Patrick Leonard takes his place as one of the most memorable people to be connected to Spike Island, and certainly the most influential born on the island.

What were the chances that one of the very few people born on this tiny island would secure such a legacy in Irish history, coming from an island that would go on to be a central location in the cause of Irish nationalism.

First as a prison holding Fenians in the mid-1800′s, then the largest prison for IRA prisoners in the Martial Law area in 1921.

It became a pawn in the Treaty negotiations, one that was only relinquished seventeen years after freedom was achieved in 1938.

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