Leahy, Patrick (1806–75), catholic archbishop of Cashel, was born 31 May 1806, probably in the townland of Fennor, Co. Tipperary, and was baptised in the parish of Gortnahoe, Co. Tipperary, eldest among four sons (and probably eldest child) of Patrick Leahy, surveyor, and his wife Margaret (née Cormack), who was from Gortnahoe. There were five daughters in the family; one died young. Patrick Leahy senior was in 1834 appointed first county surveyor of the east riding of Cork and of Cork city. With his younger son Edmund Leahy (1813?–1888), Patrick Leahy built up an important private practice, but was involved with generally unsuccessful schemes, projecting several railway lines in Munster. In 1846 father and son were dismissed from their official positions on grounds of negligence and fraud, and Patrick senior died in 1850 at the Cape of Good Hope. Edmund and two younger brothers, Denis and Matthew Leahy, went on to have chequered careers as public works superintendents, railway projectors, and surveyors in England, Turkey, Africa, and the Caribbean. Edmund, curiously, ended his career as manager of Finsbury Turkish baths, in London, and died in an accident on a railway line.
By contrast, Patrick Leahy junior seems to have always been intended for the priesthood. He was educated at a classical day school in Thurles and at the Free School in Clonmel, and entered St Patrick's College, Maynooth, in August 1826. Ordained priest of the diocese of Cashel (18 June 1833) at Maynooth College, he was posted as curate to Knocklong and then Thurles (1833–7). He was made professor of theology in St Patrick's College, Thurles, when it opened in September 1837, and by late 1838 also held the office of college president. He was secretary to Archbishop Michael Slattery (qv) from c.1840. The boarding and day college expanded in the early 1840s but suffered as the number of applicants fell during the later famine years. Consequently, Leahy's principal administrative aims from 1848 to 1857 were to raise sufficient funds to keep doors open and to restore student numbers. In May 1849 he negotiated terms for college affiliation with the University of London. Hosting the synod of Thurles in August 1850 represented a coup for the college and diocese. Leahy acted as honorary secretary to the synod and won the approval of Archbishop Paul Cullen (qv). This led, in early 1851, to his induction on to the organising committee of the proposed Catholic University of Ireland. He took the position of professor of theology and vice-rector of the university when it was established in May 1854.
While resident in Dublin (1854–7) he continued to be Slattery's confidant, supporting the archbishop, for example, in his efforts to preserve the custom of the stations in Munster parishes. Leahy deplored the way Cullen went about diocesan changes as ‘checking and checkmating ... the bishops ... by secret, unseen, underhand means’ (Kerr, 205). It says much for Leahy's tact that despite his privately expressed views on Cullen, it transpired that he was Cullen's choice for the archbishopric on the death of Slattery in February 1857. Leahy had been made eligible for the office in January that year when he had been promoted parish priest of Cashel. Taking most of the votes at the electoral meeting of clergy in Thurles (27 March 1857), he was commended to Propaganda by the assembly of bishops some weeks later and elected archbishop of Cashel on 27 April and consecrated 29 June. That month he was plunged into a mazy archiepiscopal conflict over plans to reform the administration of the Irish College in Paris. At first trying to mediate between Cullen and the recalcitrant John MacHale (qv), archbishop of Tuam, he was not afraid to scold Cullen for attempts to settle the Paris dispute behind the backs of the other bishops.
During his early years in the episcopacy Leahy took a pragmatic view of the system of national education, successfully neutralising the impact on church policy of the rejectionist views of MacHale and the bishops of the Tuam province, arguing (March 1859) that it was wisest to ‘use [national education] as best we can, for want of better, for fear of worse’ (Norman, 55). One of his first acts at diocesan level was to introduce an ordinance requiring the Sunday closure of public houses. Despite the ridicule of many of his lower clergy, he persisted over the next decade in attempting to get up a local temperance campaign and working to have a Sunday closing act passed in parliament. Though supported by local magistrates the results of his campaign were not spectacular. By 1868 he had recognised that the chance of getting legislation to his liking through parliament was remote.
The election of a coadjutor for Daniel Vaughan, bishop of Killaloe 1851–9, was carried through its initial stages by Leahy in early 1858, under Vatican instruction, in the teeth of protests by diocesan clergy that the agreed procedures of consultation were being set aside. Though he permitted an informal ballot of clergy as a gesture towards maintaining the traditional Irish way of selecting clergy, Leahy's influence brought about the appointment of Michael Flannery, who had received only enough votes to be in fourth place on the clergy's list. During the rest of his archbishopric Leahy accepted the form of the Irish tradition of the clerical terna (ratified by a Vatican decree of 1829), though he sometimes betrayed the spirit of the process. In late 1860 Propaganda queried the fairness of a Cashel episcopal report on candidates for coadjutor bishop of Limerick, though Leahy's choice of the Rev. George Butler (1815–86) was eventually confirmed.
Speaking at the opening meeting of the National Association in late December 1864 in Dublin, Leahy welcomed the new organisation and advanced a relatively uncontentious plan of tenurial reform to be recommended to parliament, arguing that it was periodically necessary for the higher clergy to take part in politics ‘to ask for justice for a long-suffering people’ (quoted in Larkin, 1860–70, 305). By far the most regular attender at committee meetings during the 1860s, he continued to advocate the cause of the National Association at all Tipperary elections through to its demise in 1873. Despite the appeals of William J. O'Neill Daunt (qv), a friend and correspondent, he withheld his support from the Home Government Association, assuming that it was made up largely of protestant radicals unsympathetic to the interests of the catholic church. He was capable, however, of carrying on discussion with the evangelical Liberation Society of London during the mid 1860s in the search for allies in the campaign against the Church of Ireland's established status. Leahy held somewhat more nationalist views than most of his colleagues in the mid-Victorian Irish catholic hierarchy, but even so he was interested in a strictly limited nationalism, with its aims confined largely to the achievement of what he saw as the just demands of the catholic church, particularly in the matter of education. While he might express sympathy for Fenian prisoners during the amnesty movement of 1868–72, he moved ruthlessly to quieten ‘Fenian’ clerics in his jurisdiction.
By the later 1860s his hopes for the realisation of a fully fledged catholic university were vested in Gladstone's liberal party. As one of two nominees representing the Irish bishops between 1866 and 1868, during protracted negotiations with the tory party on the content of university legislation, he was humiliated by the tory volte-face in 1869. His main concern in the early 1870s was to prevent lay catholic initiatives on the university question from getting a serious hearing in parliament, lest the wishes of the Irish hierarchy be brushed aside.
In 1869 the caucus of Irish bishops nominated Leahy to the committee of the Deputatio de Fide on the first Vatican council, and he was in Rome from December 1869 to July 1870. A devotee of papal infallibility, he was among those promoting an early vote on the doctrine, fearing that opposition might gather force with time. Initially averse to defining infallibility, he changed his mind by May 1870 when he delivered, unscripted, ‘one of the most clear, solid and luminous speeches’ of the council (Larkin, 1870–74, 15). Cullen felt that he and Leahy had overthrown the arguments of MacHale at every point, greatly enhancing the prestige of the Irish contribution to the proceedings. More objective observers judged that Leahy's speech had outdone any of Cullen's pronouncements.
By 1874 the new Lombardo-Romanesque cathedral at Thurles, regarded by critics at the time of its inception in late 1865 as an archiepiscopal vanity project, was more or less completed. By means of astute and energetic fund-raising campaigns, in Munster and abroad, Leahy ensured that the cathedral was virtually paid for by the time it was ready for use. Criticism in the diocese was thus effectively silenced. By the 1870s Cullen's early anxiety that Leahy might prove indolent in office had been dispelled. During the course of his archbishopric, Leahy acted as a buffer between a dictatorial Cullen and a wary episcopate, and retained the respect of both sides. He died 26 January 1875 at his palace in Thurles and is buried in the Cathedral of the Assumption.