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 in a small way to the adoption of our national flag.
On 12th of October, 1814, John Patrick Leonard was born on Spike Island, a 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.
Fortunately for Irish interests his passions and talents lay elsewhere. Despite his modest station, Leonard was extremely skilled at networking among the French elite. 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.
Maximizing these connections, Leonard was endlessly generous with his time in the advancement of Irish Nationalism, the defining cause of his lifetime. He became known as the unofficial Irish Ambassador to 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, welcoming 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 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, a ‘who’s who’ of 19th century Irish opposition to British rule.
They all found a friend and ally in John Leonard, who assisted them in their efforts and movements in Paris. Paris had become 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. They discussed what had gone well and not so well in France’s revolutionary efforts, but primarily their inspiration came from France’s revolutionary past.
The Emperor Napoleon III considered their presence useful, something of a bargaining chip with the British. 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 to offer congratulations to the new French revolutionary government. Leonard aided Meagher and his group in their visit, as he had many before and after.
It was with Meagher and another nationalist, William Smith O’Brien, that Leonard made arguably his largest enduring contribution to the Irish cause. Spending time with the duo, Leonard must have learned of Meagher’s act of flying the Irish flag over the Mall in Waterford just weeks before. This is considered the first public outing of the flag, although there are records of early tricolors, and evidence of green, white and gold/yellow rossettes from well before. The flag is also reported to have been marched in a procession to Vinegar Hill on the very same day Meagher first flew it in Waterford.
Meagher may also have shared with Leonard his burgeoning belief that the flag could be a unifying tool between Ireland’s Catholics and Protestants. During the Paris trip, Leonard brought Meagher to the theater to see ‘Phedre’, a French tragedy involving the lead actress singing a stirring version of the Marseillaise while waving the French tri-colour. It seems flags and their symbolism were a frequent part of the trip. Meagher was said to be most moved.
Prior to returning to Ireland, Meagher was also presented with a green, white and gold tri-colour woven by a group of sympathetic French women. It was a high quality effort, made with silk, and must have greatly touched the patriotic Meagher.
The exact events leading to the presentation of the flag in Paris by the French women are sketchy. It is entirely possible the French woman came up with this generous gift off their own bat, having heard of Meagher’s use of the tricolor weeks earlier, in a very worthy donation. Though sometimes suggested in modern times the French women played a part in its design, this would not have been possible on the occasion of Meagher’s visit as the design was well established and had been publicly displayed.
Equally possible is that Meagher requested 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. Such a request would be enthusiastically honored by John Patrick Leonard, a man noted as a master of ceremonies.
Finally, it is entirely possible John Patrick Leonard requested the production of the significant and poignant gift, having heard from Meagher of his use of the Tricolour. In the opinion of this author, this is the more likely scenario. Leonard repeatedly proved himself adept at such ceremony during his lifetime, showing the craft and guile of a seasoned orchestrator. It seems an enormous coincidence that a group of French women heard of the use of an Irish Tricolor by Meagher and donated one to him during his visit, without the involvement of regular organiser Leonard who would be well briefed and familiar with its significance following his time with Meagher.
Whatever the circumstances, Meagher put the flag to good use. He brought this Paris made flag to Ireland and unveiled it at a meeting with fellow Young Irelander’s, eliciting a very positive response. John Mitchel proclaimed he wished to see it become our national flag, though he did not live to see it.
Meagher would espouse his symbolism for the flag around this time;
‘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’.
It was a small part in Irish flag story for Leonard, either requesting the creation of the striking Tricolor or facilitating Meagher or the flags presentation. 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.
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 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. He even founded an Irish colony of more than 100 souls in French Algeria.
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”.
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 . 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.
That a noted champion of Irish nationalism would be one of the few born on an island that would hold Fenians in the mid-1800′s, then an enormous prison for Irish Republicans in the Martial Law area during the Irish War of Independence in 1921, is at the very least a notable coincidence.
REFERENCES – FURTHER READING:
Julienne, Janick. An Irishman in Paris; John Patrick Leonard, at the heart of Franco-Irish Relations (1814-1889). s.l. : Peter Lang Ltd, 2017.
Leonard, John Patrick. Dictionary of Irish Biography. [Online] 10 2009. [Cited: 04 24, 2022.] https://www.dib.ie/biography/leonard-john-patrick-a4797.
An Irishwoman’s Diary: John Patrick Leonard, an Irish republican in 19th-century France. https://www.irishtimes.com/. [Online] 12 06, 2016. [Cited: 04 24, 2022.] https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/an-irishwoman-s-diary-john-patrick-leonard-an-irish-republican-in-19th-century-france-1.2891248.