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O'Leary was born at Fanlobbus, County Cork, Ireland. He was educated with the Franciscans of Saint Malo, where he was ordained and acted as prison chaplain till 1777. He returned to Cork to engage in missionary work.
He is charged by James Froude with having received secret-service money from the Government, but other historians consider this unproven. In 1786-88 he argued the Catholic case in the so-called "Paper War" between conservative Protestants and moderates that sought further legal reform of the Penal Laws, leading towards Catholic Emancipation. O'Leary's arguments helped Henry Grattan with his proposal in 1788 to remove the tithe paid by Roman Catholics to the Church of Ireland, but this was voted down by the Parliament of Ireland.
From 1789 till his death he was chaplain to the Spanish embassy in London. He was a wit, and socially acquainted with the circle of Edmund Burke, Richard Sheridan, and Charles James Fox. In the 1790s he built the original St Patrick's Church, Soho Square for the poor London Irish living around St Giles. He died in London and was buried in Old St Pancras Churchyard. His name is listed on the Burdett-Coutts Memorial to the eminent graves lost from the graveyard.
He published tracts characterized by learning, religious feeling, toleration, and allegiance to the Crown. His work for reform of the anti-Catholic penal laws was too heterodox for some Catholics, but not in his own day. Formerly Catholics had been loyal to the Jacobite movement, and some felt that O'Leary was being too friendly to the Hanoverian dynasty. He realised that an engagement with Protestants was necessary to ensure reforms from the British and Irish parliaments, whose members were all Protestant at that time. Reforms had just started with the Papists Act 1778 and the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1791.
During the 1790s he was, like many Catholics, horrified at the Dechristianisation of France during the French Revolution.
At the time when the penal laws were slowly being reformed, his aim was for Catholics in Britain and Ireland to achieve legal equality with Anglicans, and he was a precursor of those who finally obtained Catholic Emancipation in 1829. Among his writings are:
- A Defence of the Divinity of Christ and the Immortality of the Soul
- Loyalty Asserted, or the Test Oath Vindicated
- An Address to the Roman Catholics Concerning the Apprehended Invasion of the French
- Essay on Toleration
- A Reply to John Wesley
- See:The Dublin Paper War of 1786-1788: A Bibliographical and Critical Inquiry, including an Account of the Origins of Protestant Ascendancy and Its 'Baptism' in 1792 by W. J. McCormack; reviewed in Eighteenth-Century Ireland / Iris an dá chultúr, Vol. 10, (1995), pp. 165-167.
- Obituary in the Annual Register, 1802
- O'Leary in the Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913 Archived April 24, 2014, at the Wayback Machine.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Arthur O'Leary". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton. The entry cites:
- Fr. O'Leary in Jonah Barrington's memoirs, chapter 43; accessed Dec 2009
- Thomas Richard England, Life of Rev. Arthur O'Leary (Cork, 1822)
- M. B. Buckley, Life of Rev. Arthur O'Leary (Dublin, 1868)
- James Froude, The English in Ireland in the eighteenth century
- Life and times of Henry Grattan (London, 1832–46)
- Dictionary of British and American Authors (Philadelphia, 1859–71)
- Historical and Archeological Journal (Cork, September 1892)