O'Leary, Arthur (1834–1919), composer and pianist, was born 15 March 1834 in Tralee, Co. Kerry. He evidently displayed considerable early proficiency as a pianist and this brought him to the attention of an influential patron, Wyndham Goold (1814–54), Irish landowner and MP for Co. Limerick. Goold championed O'Leary's cause and made the introduction to his friend the English composer Sir William Sterndale Bennett (1816–85). The latter was already acquainted with Goold's sisters, Lady Dunraven and Lady Gore Booth, who had reputations as amateur pianists sufficient for Sterndale Bennett to make mention of them to his friend Felix Mendelssohn. The connection between O'Leary and Sterndale Bennett was to prove telling and it developed into a professional union and a friendship that lasted until Sterndale Bennett's death.
Sterndale Bennett accepted O'Leary as a pupil and in 1847 provided him with letters of introduction to the Leipzig Conservatorium, where the older man had studied under Mendelssohn, the first director there. Under the guidance of Mendelssohn and later of Robert Schumann and Ignaz Moscheles, the Conservatorium built an international reputation for excellence that attracted students from throughout Europe. In taking this path, O'Leary was representative of many aspiring Irish musicians over generations, whose only choice was to develop their technical proficiency and musicianship outside their native land. Following his studies in piano and composition at the Conservatorium, and with Moscheles, O'Leary returned to London and in 1856 joined his mentor Sterndale Bennett on the staff of the Royal Academy of Music. Among his many distinguished pupils there were Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900) and, notably, Charles Villiers Stanford (qv), both of whom in their turn made the educational pilgrimage to Leipzig to further their studies.
O'Leary's compositions include songs, piano pieces, and some orchestral works. They have largely been forgotten but the piano pieces enjoyed something of a renaissance eighty years after the composer's death. They reveal the influence of the dominant mid-European aesthetic of the day and are well crafted if unexceptional. Irish pianists such as Una Hunt and Anthony Byrne have performed his works, and Byrne released a CD of O'Leary's music in 2002.
O'Leary also acted as a music editor, collaborating with Sterndale Bennett on the publication of the latter's Twelve songs: opp. 23 & 35 in 1870. In addition he edited a considerable number of works by Hummel and Schubert. Some years after Sterndale Bennett's death, O'Leary delivered a review of his contribution before the Musical Association. He retired from the Royal Academy of Music in 1903 and died 13 March 1919 in London; he was buried with his wife Rosetta in Rath cemetry, Aghadoe, Co. Kerry. O'Leary is one of the ephemeral figures of nineteenth-century Irish music. His is an instructive history in that his foudroyant career path and influence upon others was considerable but his reputation has not survived.