Born: 19 March 1869, Dublin
Entered: 30 October 1886, Loyola House, Dromore, County Down
Professed: 02 February 1906
Died: 16 April 1939, St Ignatius College, Riverview, Sydney, Australia
Transcribed : HIB to ASL 05/04/1931
Early education at St Stanislaus College SJ, Tullabeg
by 1891 at Leuven, Belgium (BELG) studying
by 1905 at St David’s, Mold, Wales (FRA) making Tertianship
◆ Royal Irish Academy : Dictionary of Irish Biography, Cambridge University Press online :
O'Leary, William J.
by David Murphy
O'Leary, William J. (1869–1939), Jesuit priest and scientist, was born 19 March 1869 in Dublin, son of Dr William H. O'Leary (qv), MP for Drogheda 1874–80, surgeon, and professor of anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, and Rosina O'Leary (née Rogers). Educated at St Stanislaus College, Tullabeg, King's Co. (Offaly), and Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare, he entered the Society of Jesus in 1886, completing his noviciate at Dromore, Co. Down. He studied philosophy and astronomy at Louvain and theology in Dublin, and then taught science at Clongowes. In 1908 he travelled to Strasbourg and studied seismology under Prof. Meinka, and on his return to Ireland he set up a meteorological and seismological observatory at Mungret College, Co. Limerick, remaining as its director until 1915. At the request of a joint committee of the British Association and the Royal Meteorological Society, he carried out a series of upper-air investigations using sounding balloons (1911–14). This was the most westerly series of observations taken in Europe, and the results of O'Leary's research were published in the journals of both societies. By 1911 he had also completed a new seismograph, and this instrument was later praised by the astrophysicist and cosmologist, (Edward) Arthur Milne (1896–1950).
In 1915 he moved to the Jesuit community at Rathfarnham Castle, Dublin, and founded a seismological observatory there. He constructed his own seismograph, which had a moving mass of one-and-a-half tons. This instrument was still giving excellent service in the 1940s. He had also become aware of the need for extremely accurate timing in seismology and, turning his attention to chronometry, developed a free-pendulum clock which he patented in 1918.
In 1929 he went to Australia, where he became director of the observatory at Riverview College, New South Wales. In conjunction with the Lembang observatory in Java, he began a programme of photographic research on variable stars. He discovered several new variable stars, and the results of his research were published in the journals of the Riverview and Lembang observatories and also in the Astronomische Nachrichten. An accomplished and humorous speaker, he was extremely popular as a lecturer at scientific and public meetings. He supervised (1933–4) the construction of one of his free-pendulum clocks for Georgetown University. The clock was built by E. Esdaile & Sons in Sydney and shipped to Washington DC in August 1934, and O'Leary visited Georgetown in 1938. He was a leading member of several scientific societies, including the RIA (elected 1919), the Royal Society of New South Wales, the Société Astronomique de France, and the Seismological Society of America. He was also a member of the Australian National Committee on Astronomy and was elected (January 1938) a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.
He collapsed and died of a heart attack while playing golf (16 April 1939), and was buried at the Gore Hill cemetery, Sydney. There is a collection of his papers in the Irish Jesuit archives in Dublin, including seismological journals that he kept while at Rathfarnham. In February 1959 Georgetown University donated to the Smithsonian Institution its O'Leary free-pendulum clock and the collection of letters relating to its construction.
Fr William J. O'Leary, SJ, files in Irish Jesuit Archives, Dublin; The Catholic Press, 20 April 1939; Monthly Notice of the Royal Astronomical Society, vol. 100, no. 4, February 1940; Bulletin of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, vol. 28, no. 240, February 1986, 44–51
◆ Jesuits in Ireland :
In the days when Rathfarnham Castle was still a residence for Jesuit university students, there was a seismograph (pictured here) housed in a small building off the drive. It was the creation of Fr William O’Leary, a Jesuit scientist with an avid interest in pendulums, who had already constructed a seismograph in Mungret in 1909. He had to keep air currents and spiders at bay, since their delicate vibrations could simulate the effect of major earthquakes on the sensitive instrument. He had dreadful luck in September 1923 when his seismograph was temporarily out of order during a catastrophic (over 100,000 dead) earthquake in Japan. But his pioneering work introduced generations of Jesuit students to the rigorous measurement and technical skill required in scientific research.
◆ David Strong SJ “The Australian Dictionary of Jesuit Biography 1848-2015”, 2nd Edition, Halstead Press, Ultimo NSW, Australia, 2017 - ISBN : 9781925043280
William O'Leary was educated at Tullabeg and Clongowes; his father was a surgeon and a Member of Parliament. While at Tullabeg he developed an interest in science. He entered the Society at Dromore, 30 October 1886, did his juniorate at Tullabeg, 1888-90, studied philosophy at Louvain, 1890-93, where he did much experimental work with the inverted pendulum. He later taught mathematics and physics at Clongowes, 1893-99, studied theology at Milltown Park, 1899-03, and finished his studies with tertianship at Mold, Wales, 1904-05. In 1900 he published a textbook on mechanics.
In an obituary notice in the “Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 100, No. 4,” 1940, it said that O'Leary's “mind ran on original lines. He was never content with stereotyped textbook solutions, he had to work out each problem for himself from first principles. In this way he was able to study many questions from a fresh angle and to develop original lines of research various branches of science. Combined with this was a highly developed inventive talent and the ability to design new instruments and the skill to construct them”.
After studies, O'Leary taught physics, chemistry and mathematics, and was assistant prefect of studies at Mungret, 1905-15, as well as director of the seismological and meteorological observatory At the request of a Joint Committee of the British Association and the Royal Meteorological Society he carried out a series of upper-air investigations by means of sounding balloons. These were the farthest west observations had been made in Europe at the time.
One problem in seismometry was to obtain an instrument with a fairly long period and consequent high sensitivity O'Leary provided a satisfactory solution by constructing a two
component horizontal seismometer with trifilar suspension. One of these instruments was completed in Mungret in 1911. Later, he lectured in mathematics to the juniors at Rathfarnham, 1915-18, and started seismological observatory His “O’Leary Seismograph” was at that time the first and only one in the world. He also worked with Professor John Milne at the Shide Observatory in the Isle of Wight, and from whom he acquired the Milne-Shaw seismograph for his own seismography station at Rathfarnham. With these two seismographs, O'Leary was able to supply earthquake information to the whole country. The need for accurate timing in seismology turned O'Leary's attention to chronometry He saw that the secret of precision timing was to be sought in a free pendulum. He was one of true pioneers in the development of the free-pendulum clock in 1918.
O’Leary was minister, procurator and teacher at Belvedere, 1918-19, and then lectured mathematics and physics to the philosophers at Milltown Park, 1919-29.
He was was appointed to the Riverview observatory in July 1929. Besides introducing various improvements in the seismological department, he initiated a programme of photographic research on variable stars in collaboration with the Boscha Observatory, Lembang. He also invented and built a blink comparator, which proved successful in searching for new variable stars. He discovered many new variable stars and published several papers on variables in “Publications” of the Riverview and Ban Len Observatories and in the “Astronomisrlne Nachrichten”. Other inventions included a recording anemometer and a petrol gas plant.
Scientists and the general public appreciated O’Leary's lectures on astronomy and seismology His light and humorous touch combined with his clarity of exposition to render topics intelligible and interesting. Together with his scientific work, he found time to do good work as a priest. Many found him a wise counselor, and a humble and lovable priest and colleague. He was a little man, happy, charming, and quite unassuming in spite of his deep knowledge and high reputation.
He remained at Riverview until his death in 1939, directing the observatory until 1937 when Daniel O'Connell became director. The end of his life occurred when he collapsed and died on the golf course just after driving off. The suddenness of his death was a shock to the community, but he had had a heart condition for some time. This did not prevent him from planning fresh research and for new instruments. The day before he died he discovered a number of new variable stars with his newly completed comparator, and that night worked at the telescope taking star photographs. O'Leary was a member of the Royal Irish Academy, the Royal Society of NSW, the Société Astronomique de France, the Seismological Society of America, Past President of the NSW Branch of the British Astronomical Association, and a fellow of the Australian National Committee on Astronomy.
Note from Daniel O’Connell Entry
At this time he came under the influence of William O'Leary, the Irish Jesuit astronomer and seismologist, who at that time was director of Rathfarnham Castle Observatory in Dublin. While at the Riverview Observatory, working under William O'Leary.........
Note from Edward Pigot Entry
His extremely high standards of scientific accuracy and integrity made it difficult for him to find an assistant he could work with, or who could work with him. George Downey, Robert McCarthy, and Wilfred Ryan, all failed to satisfy. However, when he met the young scholastic Daniel O'Connell he found a man after his own heart. When he found death approaching he was afraid, not of death, but because O’Connell was still only a theologian and not ready to take over the observatory. Happily, the Irish province was willing to release his other great friend, William O'Leary to fill the gap.
◆ Irish Province News
Irish Province News 1st Year No 2 1926
SCIENTIFIC WORK AND INVENTIONS - Fr William O'Leary :
1909 Seismological observatory established at Mungret
1910 New type of seismograph invented and constructed at Mungret; A meteorological station in connection with the Meteorological Office established at Mungret; A complete set of recording instruments was installed; New type of anemometer, recording average and wind direction, invented and erected.
1912 The systematic investigation, by sounding balloons of the upper atmosphere over Ireland was begun. This important work was entrusted to Mungret by a joint committee of the Royal Meteorological Society and the British Association, as representing the International Upper Air Investigation Society, with headquarters at Strasburg. Mungret was the only Irish station entrusted with this work; The Erin Petrol Gas Generator invented by Messrs Maguire & Gatchell took over the construction of those machines, and erected a large number of them throughout Ireland.
1916 The Rathfarnham Seismological Station was established. The instrument, of the Mungret type, but of an improved design, was constructed at Rathfarnham.
1918 Precision clock invented, embodying the principle of a free pendulum. A model of a “Vertical Component” Seismograph invented some 3 years previously, was exhibited at the British Association Meeting at Edinburgh.
Irish Province News 9th Year No 1 1934
An Australian contemporary gives the following welcome news :
The Rev William O'Leary, SJ., Director of Riverview Observatory has been elected President of the New South Wales branch of the British Astronomical Association. in succession to Mr. W. F. Gale. Father O'Leary is a famous scientist, with a special knowledge of earthquakes. He studied astronomy in Louvain, Belgium, and succeeded the late Father Pigot to the charge of Riverview Observatory in July, 1929. Formerly he was Professor of Mathematics and Physics at the Jesuit College, Milltown Park, Dublin.
Irish Province News 12th Year No 2 1937
Seismological Station : A change was made in the method of recording un the O'Leary seismograph. The records are now made on smoked paper by a stylus which gives a very clear, delicate trace. This method replaces the former ink inscriptions and is calculated to give much greater sensitivity, The improvement was carried out at the suggestion of Father O'Leary, Director of Riverview College Observatory, who sent all the necessary detail of construction. On January 7th the first big earthquake of the year was recorded and the success of the new method was assured.
Irish Province News 14th Year No 3 1939
Father William O’Leary
Born, Dublin, 19th March , Educated Tullabeg, Clongowes
1886 Entered, Dromore, 30th October
1887 Dromore, Novice
1888-89 Tullabeg, Junior
1890-1892 Louvain, Philosophy
1893-1898 Clongowes, Doc
1899-1902 1899-1902 Milltown, Theology
1903 Clongowes, Doc
1904 Mold, Tertian
1905-07 Mungret, Doc. Adj. Praef. stud, Cons. dom.
1908-09 Mungret, Doc. Doc. Praes. Sod. B.V.M., Cons. dom.
1910-12 Mungret, Doc. Doc. Praes. Sod. B.V.M., Cons. dom.; Dir obser, seismol, et meteorology
1913-14 Munget, Doc an 17, Praes. Sod. SS Angel; Dir obser, seismol, et meteorology
1915 Rathfarnham, Lect. Math., Conf. N.N. ; Cons. dom. an 1
1916 Rathfarnham, Praef Spir, Lect. Math.; Cons. dom an 2.; seismol
1917 Rathfarnham, Praef Spir, Lect. Math.; Cons. dom an 3.; Dir obser
1918 Belvedere, Minister. Doc..' Cons. dom.
1919-23 Milltown, Lect. Math. et Phys. , Conf. dom.
1924 Milltown, Lect. Math. et Phys.; Conf. N.N.
1925-26 Milltown, Lect. Math. et Phys.; Praef ton; Theol et Phil
19277-28 Milltown, Lect. Math. et Phys.; Praef ton; Theol et Phil; Conf. dom.
1929 Australia, Riverview, Dir obser, seismol; Astron meteor
1930-37 Australia, Riverview, Dir obser, seismol; Astron meteor; Conf dom
1938-1939 Australia, Riverview, Adj Dir Spec; Dir sect seismol; Conf dom
Father O'Leary died in Australia, Sunday, April 16th, 1939
Father O'Leary was born in Dublin, 1869. His father William O'Leary, well known for his medical ability, and for time a Home Rule M.P. in the party of Isaac Butt. Father O'Leary was educated at Tullabeg and Clongowes. He was best known as a teacher of physics and astronomy in the Colleges and Scholasticates, and for his work on seismology. His scientific work tends to make us forget his other gifts as a preacher and Retreat-giver, in which he was remarkably successful. As student at Louvain he developed an interest in pendulums, which was the basis of his seismological activities. A full account of his work in that department has been given in the “Irish Jesuit Directory” for 1938. A visit to Prof. J, Milne's observatory at Shide, Isle of Wight, was the occasion of his applying his knowledge of pendulums to the construction of his first instrument at Mungret. During the following years he constructed and equipped a really good seismological and meteorological station there, which he left behind him as a monument to his energy and activity when he was transferred
to Rathfarnham. Here, with characteristic perseverance, he continued his work, and set about designing and constructing the instrument now in use at Rathfarnharn, in conjunction with a standard Milne-Shaw seismograph added to the Observatory in 1932. This instrument was not meant to replace the “O'Leary Seismograph”, but to give greater accuracy in the recording of earthquakes. The horizontal pendulum of the latter has a mass of 1 lb. , the O'Leary pendulum has a mass of 1.5 tons. This is the only instrument of its kind in existence, and gives an exceedingly large and clear record.
An essential element in the recording of earthquakes is a very accurate clock, which enables the exact time to be recorded on the chart. Father O'Leary designed such a clock, which includes features of great novelty. In connection with this instrument Father O'Leary paid a visit to the United States. The clock has been described by the director of a well-known observatory as “a piece of first-class and most original work”. It is of interest to put on record that Father O'Leary not only designed both clock and seismograph, but made almost every part of each, and erected them himself. In addition to these instruments he designed a system of supplying petrol-gas for laboratories far from a supply of coal gas. This apparatus had a considerable success, and for some years was on the market, until trade difficulties stopped the sale. In addition to the records of his observations, Father O'Leary wrote a text-book on mechanics.
When Father Pigot died in Australia, in 1929, then a portion of the Irish Province, Father O'Leary was chosen to succeed him as director of the Riverview College Observatory, which included astronomy, seismology and meteorology, where his knowledge and experience enabled him to do much valuable work.
His death came suddenly and unexpectedly, as he had been working in the observatory only the night before. The Australian and home newspapers contained most appreciative notices of his work. An indication of the esteem in which he was held may be gathered from the Press account of his funeral. Archbishop Gilroy presided at the Mass, at which were present Archbishop Duhig and Bishops Coleman, Dwyer and Henscke, together with some 200 priests and many representatives of Catholic schools. The laity included many distinguished scientists and representative men, such as the Attorney-General, etc. Father O'Leary was an F.R.A.S., and past-President of the British Astronomical Association.
Those who knew Father O'Leary will miss him not only as a worker, but still more for his great charm and his many gifts, which made him an excellent community man and endeared him to all by his cheerful companionship and great sense of humour. He was noted for his punctilious observance of all his spiritual duties, and died as he had lived, working for God. RIP
The following came from an Irish priest :
"During the last few weeks I have felt that I would like to write and offer to you and your distinguished Order my sympathy on the death of Father O'Leary. Many, I am sure, have written many others, too, better equipped than I, shall write about him but as a humble priest, I would like to add my humble tribute to the memory of a saintly priest and a learned Jesuit.
When I took up the paper a few weeks ago and read the cabled account of his death, I could read no further. I was truly grieved, for I felt I had lost a great friend, a friend who was, I thought, in perfect health, when I met him only a few months ago. Our friendship began ten years ago on the emigrant ship that was relentlessly taking both of us to Australia. He, fairly advanced in years, I, a young priest just ordained. He, the eminent scientist and inventor, on his way to take up one of the highest and most important positions in Australia, I an obscure priest, to take up duty as a curate in some parish in the Diocese of Sydney. None of us young priests realised that we were travelling with such a distinguished man. There was nothing that led us even to suspect it. He moved among us, spoke freely to us offered us his sympathy for he knew our hearts were full. His heart, too, was full, for he felt then that he would never see again his beloved Ireland. I often thought it was a pity that he should have to leave Ireland at his time of life, for he loved Ireland with a love that was passionate, yet tender. Whenever I visited him at Riverview, that College so beautifully situated on an eminence overlooking Sydney's wondrous harbour, his thoughts ever wandered back to Ireland. Like every exile. as he wrote himself, he hankered for the green hills of holy Ireland. Others shall appraise his work as a scientist and astronomer - to me he was always the humble, sympathetic, priestly friend. With his passing I have lost a great friend, and Australia has most certainly lost an able and scholarly Jesuit, and saintly priest.
I am sure that his soul passed through Ireland on its way to Eternity. May he rest in peace".
◆ James B Stephenson SJ Menologies 1973
Father William O’Leary SJ 1869-1939
The name of Fr William O’Leary will go down in the Province as the founder of the seismograph at Rathfarnham Castle. He was also the inventor an ingenious clock and numerous other scientific devices, as well as author of a textbook on mechanics. But these achievements as a scientific inventor were hardly half the man.
He had a remarkable oratorical ability, and many a priest of the Province will recall his elocution classes … “O Mary, call the cattle home, call the cattle home across the sands of Dee”. He was a preacher and retreat giver of no mean order,
In 1939 he was appointed to the Directorship of the Observatory at Riverview, Australia. His end came suddenly on April 16th 1939, but found him not unprepared, for he was a religious of punctilious observance and scrupulous even to a fault in the matter of poverty.