Leslie, John Randolph (‘Shane’) (1885–1971), writer and lecturer, was born in London on 24 September 1885 and christened John Randolph a few weeks later at Castle Leslie, Co. Monaghan. His father, Sir John Leslie, second baronet, was an extensive landowner in Monaghan and Donegal and a prominent Orangeman, while his mother, Leonie, was the daughter of the American entrepreneur Leonard Jerome and sister of Lady Randolph Churchill, the mother of Winston. Young John, who was the eldest of four sons, was at school at Eton, where he was not very happy. He left early and moved to Paris where he attended lectures at the Sorbonne and suffered the first of his recurrent nervous breakdowns. In October 1904 he went up to King's College, Cambridge, where he read classics and was an oarsman, and where he spent what he later described as the most strenuous, inspiring years of his life.
He stood over six feet, wrote poetry, and was counted an impractical dreamer. He became involved with a high-church circle, and this eventually led him into the Church of Rome; an important influence was the novelist priest Robert Hugh Benson, who had just converted. Irish nationalism was another interest, and Leslie joined a group taking classes in Irish from a Manx don called Dr Quiggan who was an authority on Donegal Irish. He changed his name to Shane (which he always pronounced Shaun) and took to wearing a kilt, a practice he kept up for the remainder of his long life. A book of his poems entitled Songs of Oriel was published in 1908.
On his conversion to Rome, declaring that he did not wish ever to marry or to own property, Leslie willingly renounced his right of succession to the family estates of 50,000 acres in favour of Norman, the second and favourite son. He worked in a club for Irish catholic boys in the East End of London. He taught for a time at Mount St Benedict, a school established by Downside monks (with John Francis Sweetman (qv) as headmaster) near Gorey, to which he once walked from Glaslough. He travelled to Russia, where he paid a visit to the aged Tolstoy, whom he was later pleased to claim as the greatest influence on his life. He toyed with the idea of becoming a Dominican.
On Leslie's return from Russia his cousin Winston Churchill, who was a member of the Liberal government committed to home rule for Ireland, introduced him to John Redmond (qv). As a result, Leslie was invited to stand as a nationalist candidate for Londonderry at the general election of January 1910, but lost to his unionist opponent, the heir to the duke of Abercorn, by fifty-seven votes. He then canvassed in East Tyrone for Tom Kettle (qv), whom he came to admire greatly. Leslie stood against the same opponent for Londonderry at the general election of 1910, losing this time by 105 votes. He immersed himself in the Irish language movement and interested himself in Patrick Pearse's (qv) school St Enda's.
At the end of 1911, Leslie went to the US to raise funds for the Gaelic League. Bourke Cochran, a famous Irish-American orator who was a close friend of Churchill, received him. He abandoned his plans to become a monk when he met and married Mrs Bourke Cochran's sister. She was Marjorie, the daughter of Henry Clay Ide, United States minister to Spain. It seems not to have been a wholly successful marriage. Leslie formed a succession of attachments to other ladies, whom his wife called Shane's band of alley-cats. A renowned talker, he was taciturn in his own home and showed little interest in his three children. ‘It was not that he disliked us’, wrote his daughter Anita sadly, ‘he would just have preferred if we had not existed.’ His emotional instability was clearly a problem. It is fair to add that some affection and concern for his wife and children is evidenced by his correspondence.
During the first world war, Norman Leslie was killed in action. Shane did not volunteer as a soldier but drove an ambulance in France. Then, on his way to the Dardenelles, he suffered a further nervous breakdown. After that he moved to the US, where he worked to neutralise Irish opposition to the entry of America into the war. He joined with the British ambassador, Cecil Spring-Rice, in urging the British authorities not to execute the leaders of the 1916 rebellion in Dublin and to grant immediate home rule. He edited a pro-Redmond paper in an unsuccessful effort to stem the defection of the Irish Americans to Sinn Féin that followed the executions.
After his return from the US in 1919, Leslie lived largely in London, although he also spent periods with his parents at Castle Leslie. In 1920 Churchill asked him to persuade Sinn Fein ‘to argufy and not to murder’. Through his friendship with Hazel Lavery (qv), the wife of Sir John Lavery (qv), the artist, at whose house Michael Collins (qv) met with British leaders such as Churchill, Leslie found himself on the periphery of the negotiations surrounding the Anglo–Irish treaty of December 1921. In January 1922 the Irish bishops used Leslie as a conduit to convey to Churchill their request that there should be no threats of reinvasion by Britain while the treaty was being debated by the dáil.
By this time Leslie was making his name as a writer in London. In 1921 he brought out a biography of Cardinal Manning that was a refutation of Lytton Strachey's devastating portrait in Eminent Victorians. This was symptomatic of Leslie's absorption in English catholicism, further manifested by his editorship of the Dublin Review and a biography of the catholic Mrs Fitzherbert (1756–1837), whom he proved to have been married to King George IV. He also wrote a trilogy of autobiographical novels, Doomsland, which deals with the Ireland of his childhood, The Opidan, which is about Eton, and The Cantab, which is about his Cambridge days. An explicit description of young love in The Cantab led to censure by the bishop of Northampton and an application inspired by the bishop to the Bow Street magistrate to have the book banned. It was withdrawn after the magistrate had described it as having ‘the same abandon and the same ugliness as Ulysses’. (This was somewhat ironic as a review by Leslie in the Quarterly Review in 1922 had been responsible for Ulysses being banned in England.) Leslie had to resign his editorship of the Dublin Review, but the incident did not prevent his later becoming a chamberlain to Pope Pius XI.
Leslie was a regular guest at gatherings of the aristocracy. From 1928 onwards he turned this to good account acting as agent for Rosenbach, the American book dealer, in acquiring the literary treasures of stately homes. In turn Rosenbach brought him to the United States for a term as Rosenbach fellow of bibliography at the University of Pennsylvania. Leslie's contacts with the catholic hierarchy – he had written a biography of Cardinal Gibbons – opened the way for a visiting professorship at the University of Notre Dame. His stentorian and dramatic delivery as well as his family background made him a hit on the lecture circuit.
He was prolific turning out regular reviews, articles and verse, as well as a succession of books. A lack of care in his work sometimes exposed him to adverse criticism. He kept up contacts with Irish literary figures, and was especially friendly with Lord Dunsany (qv) and Oliver St John Gogarty (qv). In 1933 he was elected an associate member of the Irish Academy of Letters. He belonged to a club called The Men of the Trees and preached that Ireland had neglected a great resource in its trees, which had been one of the most valuable legacies of the great houses. Sporting his kilt, he liked the role of the Irishman in England; he even offered himself to Eton as a tutor in Irish, and kept up his interest in the language.
With the outbreak of war in 1939 Leslie was able to resume his old role as an intermediary between nationalist Ireland and the British government. The taoiseach, Éamon de Valera (qv), sought his assistance in appealing to Churchill to prevent the execution of some of those who had planted bombs in England in 1939. Leslie ran a Shamrock Club in London for Irish soldiers of every hue serving in the war. Although he never criticised Irish neutrality, he believed that the Irish government had missed its opportunity by remaining neutral, just as Britain had done itself a disservice by letting down John Redmond after 1914. Leslie succeeded as third baronet on the death of his father in 1944 but, in accordance with a settlement made after his brother Norman had died, the family property passed direct to Shane's eldest son, Jack, who had served in the Irish Guards and spent most of the war in a German prisoner-of-war camp.
At the end of the war, in an effort to dispel misunderstanding about Ireland, Leslie wrote a charming volume The Irish tangle for English readers (1946). It is full of good insights and telling phrases. ‘Force in Ireland’, he wrote, ‘can do anything except bring the last settlement.’ And again, ‘Temporary solutions alone offer any promise.’ Some years later, writing from Castle Leslie to Churchill about the latter's history of the English-speaking peoples, Leslie urged his cousin to be kind to Ireland in future volumes, remarking somewhat wistfully, ‘They still love you over here.’ Leslie was president of the Irish Literary Society in London. In the late 1940s he made some speeches against partition but then desisted because he realised that the English were bored with Irish propaganda on the subject. The border remained a sadness for him. But he saw the mass exodus of the young from Ireland as the main problem that needed to be tackled. He established a warm relationship with President Seán T. O'Kelly (qv). After the war, Leslie kept up his American connection, acting as agent for John Fleming who took over the Rosenbach business. He also interested himself in American tree planting methods with a view to their adoption in Ireland. He was still in demand as a lecturer. Ghost stories became a specialty and he produced a book of them in these years. In 1960 he was made a Knight Commander of St Gregory by the pope after he handed over the islands in the penitential Lough Derg in Co. Donegal to the catholic bishop of Clogher. His last book, Long shadows, a volume of memoirs, was published in 1966. Like his earlier memoirs, A film of memory (1938), it abounds in interesting insights and unusual information. But they are not self-revealing and do not explain episodes such as his conversion to Rome, nor do they deal with his personal life.
Leslie died 13 August 1971 at his home in Hythe in Sussex. His body was brought back to Glaslough to be buried. He was survived by his second wife, Iris, widow of Captain Donald Frazer and daughter of Charles Laing, whom he had married in 1958 (seven years after the death of his first wife), and by his three children, Anita (qv), John (Jack), and Desmond (d. 2001). Most of his papers are deposited in Georgetown University.