Leland, Thomas (1722–85), historian, was born in Dublin, son of John Leland (about whom nothing is known). Having been schooled by the Rev. Dr Thomas Sheridan (qv) (1687–1738), he entered TCD aged 15 (24 March 1737/8), graduated BA (1742), was elected a fellow (1746) and graduated DD (1757). When Sheridan's son, Thomas (qv) (1719–88), proposed a school that would place emphasis on the reading, writing and public speaking of English (December 1757), Leland lent his support and became superintendent of the Hibernian Academy, opened, after much effort by him, in Little Green, Dublin (8 January 1759). At TCD he was professor of oratory and history (1761–2) and of oratory alone (1762–81); he was also librarian (from 1768). Ordained in the established protestant church (1748), he was chaplain to the lord lieutenant, Viscount Townshend (qv) (1768), prebend of Rathmichael (1768–73), vicar of St Ann's, Dublin (1773–85) and rector of Ardstraw, Co. Tyrone (1781–5). On being appointed to Ardstraw (probably a sinecure) he resigned his fellowship (31 May 1781). Leland was the author of A history of the life and reign of Philip, king of Macedon (2 vols, 1758) and A dissertation on the principles of human eloquence (1764). He was editor, with John Stokes, of the Philippic orations of Demosthenes (2 vols, 1754) and translator of Demosthenes’ Orations (2 vols, 1756–60; repr. 1830). He wrote a novel, Longsword, earl of Salisbury: an historical romance (1762).
Leland is primarily remembered as an historian, especially for The history of Ireland from the invasion of Henry II (3 vols, 1773; repr. 1814). In undertaking work on his History he was encouraged by Edmund Burke (qv) and Charles O'Conor (qv), the latter regarding him in 1767 as being among those ‘writers in a superior orb who do not permit religious zeal to extinguish the lights of philosophy’ (quoted in Love, ‘O'Conor & Leland’, p. 3). But when proofs of the History appeared five years later O'Conor, disappointed, told his friend John Curry (qv) that ‘Leland resigns his literary merit and all credit with impartial men’ (loc. cit., p. 15). A later historian, Francis Plowden (qv), declared that Leland had written his History, in vain, for a bishopric. A recent historian, Joseph Liechty, argues that it displeased protestants no less than catholics and that impartial history was impossible, such was ‘the wide gap between protestant and catholic views of Irish history’ (Liechty, ‘Testing the depth’, p. 57). A happier outcome was that for use on his history he received from Burke some Irish MSS belonging to Sir John Sebright which were eventually presented to TCD as the core of its Gaelic collection.
After 1773, Leland devoted himself to his Dublin parish. A posthumous publication was his Sermons (3 vols, 1788). His Dissertation on ... eloquence and translation of Demosthenese provided a style and models for Henry Grattan (qv) and other Irish parliamentary orators. Thomas Leland died 22 August 1785 in Dublin and was buried in St Ann's churchyard. Unusually for a fellow, Leland married. His son John (d. 1829) entered TCD in 1773 and was a barrister in Dublin. Thomas Leland's portrait was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds and an engraving made by Henry Brocas (qv) the younger.