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John Leonard

John Patrick Leonard (Spike Island, Cork, 1814 – Paris, 1889) is one of those characters I did not intend to include on this site at the start, but whose name cropped up so often in my research that he became impossible to ignore.

Leonard first arrived in France in 1829 to study French for a year. He came back in 1834—this time to study medicine—and ended up staying until the end of his days 55 years later. He fought as a garde national during the 1848 revolution, was wounded and was
 The College Chaptal
naturalised a French citizen the same year. By this stage, he was becoming a pivotal figure in the Irish community in Paris, with Charles Gavan Duffy describing him as
“like a chargé d’affaires for an Irish government in Paris”. His involvement in the cause of Irish nationalism is testified by his vain attempt to convince the French government to intervene to stop the deportations to Australia of some of the Irish leaders after the 1848 rebellion in Ireland, including Thomas Francis Meagher. In early April 1848, Leonard, Meagher and William Smith O’Brien went to the Théâtre Français (also called the Comédie Française, 1st arrondissement) to attend a performance of Jean Racine’s tragedy, Phèdre. Suffused with a large dose of 19th century French republican rhetoric and topped off with the arrival of the leading lady  on the stage singing the Marseillaise and waving the French flag, this performance is said to have given the Irishmen their idea for the current Irish tricolour.

His 1860 trip to Châlons-sur-Saône with John Mitchel to present Marshall MacMahon with an Irish sword; his close friendship with the likes of John O’Leary, Miles Byrne and Arthur O’Connor; the help he provided to Irish people in France; the important work he undertook tracing the careers of members of Irish regiments that had fought in the service of France; his persistent fund-raising for charities in Ireland; all these initiatives underline the important place Leonard held in Irish nationalist circles in Paris. Amid the constant comings and goings of figures like James Stephens, John O'Leary and John Mitchel, Leonard was a constant of the Irish scene in Paris. By way of example, John Devoy turned up on his doorstep in 1861, and Leonard helped him enrol in the Foreign Legion. Leonard had his fingers in many pies. In 1869, he backed a project aimed at the plantation of 130 Irish settlers in French Algeria. Predictably, the scheme did not work out, and most of the Irish (bar some who drowned when their ship sunk outside Bordeaux) had left Algeria by 1871. Leonard represented John Mitchel and his family at the funeral of Mitchel’s daughter, Henrietta, at Montparnasse cemetery in 1863 when Mitchel had already returned to the United States.

46, rue de la Victoire
After his arrival in Paris, Leonard had quickly given up his medical studies to study English language and literature, and he had become a teacher in the late 1830s, initially in Sens in northern Burgundy and then in Paris. By 1849, he was teaching English at the College Chaptal at 11, rue Andrieux (8th arrondissement) and at the Ecole des Arts Industriels et de Commerce in rue Charonne (11
th arrondissement). In 1849, his address was 451, rue de la Chaussee d’Antin and a year later he was living nearby at 46, rue de la Victoire (9th arrondissement).

As a teacher, Leonard appears to have had mixed results, at least early on. An inspector’s report from Sens in 1844-1845 reads: “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.”

 36, rue Constantinopole
Leonard undoubtedly liked to hang out with the rich and famous of the day, and thus curried favour with Marshall MacMahon, Adolphe Thiers and the highest ecclesiastical authorities, most notably the bishop of Orleans. Leonard also had a penchant for medals and honours. As early as 1843 he tried to have himself awarded the Légion d’Honneur. His sponsor, a member of parliament, cited a long list of heroic deeds undertaken by Leonard to justify such an honour (intervening in brawls, saving a man who fell under a horse etc..). One such incident sounds almost farcical: “During the summer of 1837”, writes the MP, “a young man of 17 years of age, a student at Sens college, was bathing alone in the Yonne river when his bathing trunks suddenly fell below his knees and prevented him from swimming. Mr. Leonard rushed to his rescue and with great difficulty brought him back to the riverbank.”

Alas, Leonard would have to wait until 1871 before he was awarded his much-coveted Légion d’Honneur for his work with the Irish Ambulance during the Franco-Prussian War. Leonard was also active in distributing money raised in Ireland to various French parishes during the War. He was also at the centre of a grouping called the
Anciens irlandais, who along with figures like John O'Leary, Miles Byrne, the viscount O'Neill de Tyrone, judge Edmond Connolly and the composer Joseph O'Kelly, every year organised a St. Patrick's Day dinner at the Véfour restaurant in the Palais Royal (1st arrondissement). "Who on earth would every take Professor Leonard for anything but a Frenchman! the Irish Times correspondent wondered aloud on the occasion of the St. Patrick's Day dinner in 1877. "He has all that curious frequency of graceful that you find in the Gaul, all the purity of that most delightful of accents which is spoken by educated Parisians, and the head and the face which you would expect to see on the shoulders of some devoted Legitimist or of some frantic Republican of the Extreme Left."

Leonard changed address frequently in the early 1870s, although he always remained in the lower middle-class part of the 8th arrondissement. He lived for a time at 68, rue de Rome and at 3, boulevard de Courcelles but by the time of his retirement in 1877, Leonard had been living for four years at 36, rue Constantinople. His wife (born O’Kearny) died in October 1873. Upon his own death in Paris in 1889,  Leonard’s remains were buried back in Cork, in accordance with his wishes. The manuscript of his memoirs, Fifty years’ recollections of France, was lost before it could be published.

Select Bibliography
Archives Nationales
Legion d’Honneur file: LH 1591/68
Teaching record: F/17/21154 and F/17/21385/A
Police file: F/7/2231/2

John Leonard “John Patrick Leonard (1814-1889), charge d’affaires d’un gouvernement irlandais en France”
Janick Julienne in Etudes irlandaises no. 25.2 (2000)

“Meagher to Leonard July, 1849. Thomas Francis Meagher’s Last Letter Written in Ireland and Some New Information Pertaining to the Origins of the Irish Tricolour”, John M. Hearne, in Decies, 65,Services/eJournals/Decies/

"Paris Letter", The Irish Times, March 22, 1877