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Reserve Forces & Cadets Association
Northern Ireland



05 January 2018

A challenge to find out more about the history of World War I by researching stories of ‘local heroes’ has connected Cadets of Gransha ACF with man who showed immense bravery in the Great War. 

The Cadets from Gransha Army Cadet Force detachment chose to study the life and times of Victoria Cross recipient, Sergeant Michael O’Leary.

Cadet Lance Corporal Amie Hamilton says of their choice, “Michael O’Leary was born near Macroom in County Cork in 1890, so we cast our net wide for our ‘local hero’.  We were drawn to him however because he was so young and dare-devil and because he was a superstar hero of his day.”

Michael was born to a poor family and had few opportunities as he grew up.  He joined the Royal Navy aged just 16, moving on to serve with the Irish Guards from 1910-1913, leaving in order to emigrate and join the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  As a Mountie he showed the first signs of his inate courage, being awarded a gold ring in recognition of his bravery in capturing two criminals after a two-hour gun battle.

He returned to the Irish Guards in 1914 and, on February 1st 1915, now promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal, he found himself involved in an attack on a stretch of La Bassée canal in northern France.

In a near-suicidal act of bravery he ran forward in front of his men, mounted a railway embankment and shot five members of a German machine-gun crew before attacking another machine-gun crew 60 yards farther on, killing three more Germans and capturing two. 

His comrades apparently couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing and one later said, O’Leary came back from the killing as cool as if he had been for a walk in the park”. 

In recognition of his courage, he was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) and promoted to sergeant.  The propaganda machine of the British War Office  swung into action and the young soldier – still just 24 - was feted wherever he went, celebrated as a true Irish hero.  

His family were pursued by reporters and his father was quoted as saying, “I am surprised he didn’t do more. I often laid out 20 men myself with a stick coming from Macroom Fair, and it is a bad trial of Mick that he could kill only eight, and he having a rifle and bayonet!” 

Returning to civilian life proved less easy for Michael O’Leary and the dare-devil attitudes which helped make him a hero got him into hot water.  After the war he joined the Ontario police and ended up in court twice, once for smuggling bootleg and once for smuggling an alien across from America.

Rather than deport a war hero, the Canadian authorities offered to pay for O’Leary and his family to go home to Ireland, but he chose to settle in Britain where he died in 1961. 

Completing the research project, Holly McAlpine said, “War seemed to draw the best out of Michael O’Leary and that fact gave us a great deal to think about. The whole exercise was filled with ‘food for thought’ and we’ll take away a much deeper understanding of World War 1, recognising that the war stories didn’t all end as the Armistice was signed.”