Leonard McNally, an Irish barrister, playwright, lyricist, founding member of the United Irishmen and spy for the British Government within Irish republican circles, dies in Dublin on June 8, 1820.
McNally is born in Dublin in 1752, the son of a merchant and wine importer. He is raised by his mother with the support of his uncle. He is born into a Roman Catholic family, but at some point in the 1760s he converts to the Church of Ireland. He is passionate about theatre, entirely self-educated and initially becomes a merchant in Bordeaux like his father.
However, in 1774 McNally goes to London to study law at the Middle Temple but returns to Dublin to be called to the Irish bar in 1776. After returning to London in the late 1770s, he qualifies as a barrister in England as well, in 1783. He practises for a short time in London and, while there, supplements his income by writing plays and editing The Public Ledger.
Returning to Ireland, McNally developes a successful career as a barrister in Dublin. He develops an expertise in the law of evidence and, in 1802, publishes what becomes a much-used textbook, The Rules of Evidence on Pleas of the Crown. The text plays a crucial role in defining and publicising the beyond reasonable doubt standard for criminal trials.
Not long after returning to Ireland, McNally becomes involved in radical politics, having already in 1782 published a pamphlet in support of the Irish cause. He becomes Dublin’s leading radical lawyer of the day. In 1792, he represents James Napper Tandy, a radical member of the Irish Parliament, in a legal dispute over parliamentary privilege. In the early 1790s, he becomes a founder member of the United Irishmen, a clandestine society which soon develops into a revolutionary Irish republican organisation. He ranks high in its leadership and acts as the organisation’s chief lawyer, representing many United Irishmen in court. This includes defending Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet, the leaders of the 1798 and 1803 rebellions respectively, at their trials for treason. In 1793, he is wounded in a duel with Sir Jonah Barrington, who had insulted the United Irishmen. Barrington subsequently describes McNally as “a good-natured, hospitable, talented and dirty fellow.”
After McNally’s death in 1820, it emerges that he had for many years been an informant for the government, and one of the most successful British spies in Irish republican circles that there has ever been. In 1794, when a United Irishmen plot to seek aid from Revolutionary France is uncovered by the British government, McNally turns informer to save himself, although, subsequently, he also receives payment for his services. He is paid an annual pension in respect of his work as an informer of £300 a year, from 1794 until his death in 1820.
From 1794, McNally systematically informs on his United Irishmen colleagues, who often gather at his house for meetings. It is he that betrays Lord Edward FitzGerald, one of the leaders of the 1798 rebellion, as well as Robert Emmet in 1803. A significant factor in the failure of the 1798 rebellion is the excellent intelligence provided to the government by its agents. McNally is considered to be one of the most damaging informers.
The United Irishmen represented by McNally at their trials are invariably convicted and he is paid by the crown for passing the secrets of their defence to the prosecution. During the trial of Emmet, he provides details of the defence’s strategy to the crown and conducts his client’s case in a way that assists the prosecution. For example, three days before the trial he assures the authorities that Emmet “does not intend to call a single witness, nor to trouble any witness for the Crown with a cross-examination, unless they misrepresent facts… He will not controvert the charge by calling a single witness.” For his assistance to the prosecution in Emmet’s case, he is paid a bonus of £200, on top of his pension, half of which is paid five days before the trial.
After McNally’s death, his activities as a government agent become generally known when his heir attempts to continue to collect his pension of £300 per year. He is still remembered with opprobrium by Irish nationalists. In 1997, the Sinn Féin newspaper, An Phoblacht, in an article on McNally, describes him as “undoubtedly one of the most treacherous informers of Irish history.”
McNally is a successful dramatist and writes a number of well-constructed but derivative comedies, as well as comic operas. His first dramatic work is The Ruling Passion, a comic opera written in 1771, and he is known to have authored at least twelve plays between 1779 and 1796 as well as other comic operas. His works include The Apotheosis of Punch (1779), a satire on the Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Tristram Shandy (1783), which is an adaptation of Laurence Sterne‘s novel, Robin Hood (1784), Fashionable Levities (1785), Richard Cœur de Lion (1786), and Critic Upon Critic (1788).
McNally also writes a number of songs and operettas for Covent Garden. One of his songs, The Lass of Richmond Hill, becomes very well-known and popular following its first public performance at Vauxhall Gardens in London in 1789. It is said to be a favourite of George III and popularises the romantic metaphor “a rose without a thorn,” a phrase which he used in the song.
Nothing is known of McNally’s first wife Mary O’Brien, other than that she dies in 1786. In London in 1787, he elopes with Frances I’Anson, as her father William I’Anson a solicitor, disapproves of McNally. Frances, and her family’s estate, Hill House in Richmond, North Yorkshire, is the subject of a song with lyrics by McNally and composed by James Hook, The Lass of Richmond Hill. In 1795, Frances dies during childbirth at age 29 and is survived by only one daughter. In early 1799, McNally marries his third wife, Louisa Edgeworth, the daughter of a clergyman from County Longford.
When McNally’s son, who has the same and professions, dies on February 13, 1820, it is widely reported to have been McNally. The son is buried in Donnybrook, Dublin, on February 17, 1820, and McNally sends a letter on March 6, 1820 to the Proprietor of Saunders’s Newsletter seeking damages for the severe injury caused by the circulation of his death. In June 1820, McNally is on his deathbed, and although he had been a Protestant for most of his adult life, he seeks absolution from a Roman Catholic priest. He dies and is also buried in Donnybrook on June 8, 1820.