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Joseph Michael Leary (1831–1881)

by Mark Lyons

This article was published:

Joseph Michael Leary (1831-1881), solicitor and politician, was born at Campbelltown, New South Wales, son of John Leary and his wife Catherine, née Jones. Educated at St Mary's seminary and W. Cape's Sydney College, he studied at the University of Sydney for two years before returning to Campbelltown. In 1860 he won the Legislative Assembly seat of Narellan against the sitting member, John Hurley. His support for John Robertson's Land Acts together with his native birth and polished style proved his greatest assets in a bitter campaign. An able debater in parliament, Leary demonstrated that Catholicism was compatible with colonial liberalism by supporting not only the abolition of state aid to religion and the establishment of the Irish National education system but also such radical causes as payment of members of parliament and divorce legislation. He argued that as a Catholic he would not practise divorce but it should be available for those who sought it. In the 1864 election he was denounced by Catholic clergy. He countered with denunciations of clerical interference in politics but was narrowly defeated by Hurley.

Leary took up law and after serving his articles under Richard Driver he was admitted as a solicitor on 22 December 1866. In one of his first cases he helped to defend the bushranging Clarke brothers. After failing to stay their execution, he joined the Society for Abolition of Capital Punishment and was later appointed to its executive. He maintained an interest in politics and supported Henry Parkes's 1866 Public Schools Act against the criticisms of many Catholics. Re-elected for Narellan in 1869, he lost the seat again to Hurley in 1872. In 1874 he contested Murrumbidgee without success but was elected unopposed at a by-election early in 1876, and held the seat against strong competition in 1877. He refused office in Parkes's 1877 ministry, but became minister of justice and public instruction in J. S. Farnell's 1878 'third party' government. By then Leary's views on public education had changed. In 1879-80 he condemned Parkes's public instruction bill although it did no more than introduce policies he himself had advocated in the 1860s. The Catholic-Liberal tradition he had represented had been an early victim of the sectarianism of the late 1860s and 1870s.

In 1880 Leary contested Camden in vain but he was already ill and on 20 October 1881 he died from heart and kidney disease at his home in Macquarie Street aged 49. Buried in Petersham cemetery, he was survived by his wife Catherine, née Keighran, whom he had married at Campbelltown on 6 September 1854, and by five sons and five daughters. He left goods valued at £200.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Dec 1860, 16 Dec 1864, 16 Dec 1869, 16 Mar 1876, 21 Oct 1881
  • Empire (Sydney), 2 Oct 1865
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 12 June 1869, 20 Oct 1881
  • J. P. McGuanne, Centenary of Campbelltown (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Mark Lyons, 'Leary, Joseph Michael (1831–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Campbelltown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


20 October, 1881 (aged ~ 50)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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Key Organisations
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