The old Fenian leader John O'Leary was a domineering figure in Irish political thinking at the end of the 19th century. He had in 1865 been imprisoned for the crime of printing in Ireland an Irish newspaper that expressed the Irish point of view. He was freed after five years on the condition he would not return to Ireland until twenty years has passed. In 1885, he was finally free to do so and returning from Paris he became a central presence at the Contemporary Club founded in Dublin that year, frequented by John Butler Yeats and W. B. Yeats. At the Club JBY was noted as 'an excellent talker on art, literarture, philosophy'
but usually 'he kept silence, busily sketching in his sketchbook
.' (W. Murphy, Prodigal Father
, 1978, p.144). WBY on the other hand was always vocal. O'Leary had an enormous influence on him, WBY later writing, 'From these debates, from O'Leary's conversation, and from the Irish books he lent or gave me has come all I have set my hand to since'
). With great foresight, O'Leary recognised WBY as the only one in the group of young people in the Contemporary 'who will ever be reckoned a genius' and encouarged him from the outset (quoted in W. Murphy, op. cit
., p. 143). WBY immortalised O'Leary in his September 1913
last two lines of each stanza reading:
'Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave'.
Two oil portairts by John Butler Yeats of John O'Leary are in the National Gallery of Ireland and are considered amongst his greatest portraits.