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d. 22 Feb. 1927 in Victoria


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O’LEARY, RICHARD, businessman; b. 24 June 1865 in Richibucto, N.B., second of the five children of Henry O’Leary* and his first wife, Mary Ann Brittain; half-brother of Henry Joseph O’Leary and brother-in-law of George Valentine McInerney*; m. likely in 1886 Elizabeth Buckley (1861–1941) of Newcastle, N.B., and they had six daughters and one son; d. 27 Sept. 1932 at his summer home in Kouchibouguac, N.B., and was buried in Richibucto.

Richard O’Leary was seven when his mother died prematurely in 1872, probably during or as a result of childbirth. His early years were disrupted by this loss, and perhaps traumatized by a scandal involving his father. Henry O’Leary, then an mla, was sued in the Supreme Court of New Brunswick in 1875 for breach of promise. Bowing to pressure from his late wife’s family, who strongly disapproved of his new fiancée, O’Leary had broken off his engagement and was ordered to pay $1,400 in damages to the plaintiff; he married someone else even while the lawsuit was in progress.

Young Richard was educated at two bilingual Roman Catholic institutions: in French at the Collège Saint-Louis in Saint-Louis de Kent, N.B., and in English at the Collège Sainte-Marie in Montreal. (He and his children spoke both languages fluently.) At age 16 O’Leary became a clerk in the Bank of Nova Scotia – likely at Richibucto – where he remained for two years. In 1883 his father sent him north to Campbellton, N.B., to manage the branch of the family business that Henry had established there. During his stay he married Elizabeth Buckley; the couple’s first child was born in May 1887. When the Campbellton operation folded in 1892, Richard returned to Richibucto to help run his father’s other enterprises, which comprised a wharf and a general store, canneries for the export trade in seafood, sawmills, and shipbuilding facilities. Richard became his father’s partner, taking over the business on the latter’s death in 1897. He expanded Henry’s interests, abandoning shipbuilding and diversifying into electrical utilities and telecommunications, areas in which he was a pioneer.

Embracing new technology was the secret of O’Leary’s success. In 1901 he modified a sawmill to create a power plant to electrify Richibucto and nearby Rexton; this plant eventually delivered hydroelectric power with the aid of a dam on the Kouchibouguac River. It was O’Leary, too, who established Kent County’s telephone system and promoted regional long-distance telephone service. In 1907 he facilitated a merger of the Central Telephone Company, which by then counted the Kent O’Leary Company Line among its assets, and the New Brunswick Telephone Company. Rewarded with a directorship in NBTel, as the firm was to become known, he would take office as second vice-president in 1923 and first vice-president in 1928. An influential director of the company for 25 years, O’Leary was instrumental in its growth. He would also serve on the board of the New Brunswick Trust Company (from 1929 Maritime Trust).

Between 1910 and 1914 O’Leary established seafood canneries along the northern and eastern coasts of New Brunswick, ranging as far south as Port Elgin. He was also involved in the trans-shipping and wholesale marketing of the product of his factories. In 1910 he expanded into Nova Scotia, setting up a branch business in Halifax. O’Leary and Lee, canners and exporters of processed lobster, prospered; mp William Stewart Loggie* described it in 1919 as “by all odds” one of the two largest handlers of tinned lobsters in Canada. The firm survived long enough to become, around 1947, a division of the recently founded National Sea Products Limited (later High Liner Foods Incorporated). In addition to running his seafood enterprises and operating sawmills at Richibucto and Rexton, O’Leary leveraged unusual or underexploited resources. In 1908 he had floated and become president of the Father Morriscy Medicine Company Limited, formed to market the pharmacopoeia of the late William Morriscy*. The business did not succeed, however, and in 1913 it was sold to a Montreal drug company.

O’Leary’s expertise as a seafood processor brought him to the attention of the federal Department of Marine and Fisheries, whose minister was John Douglas Hazen. In July 1912 Hazen appointed O’Leary a member of the royal commission to investigate the shellfish industry of the Maritime provinces with a view to developing a permanently sustainable resource. O’Leary was said in one obituary to have been “largely responsible in framing the report that was submitted to and adopted by the Government.” In August 1915 the Conservative administration in New Brunswick appointed him a director of the scandal-ridden Saint John and Quebec Railway Company after the province had nationalized it [see James Kidd Flemming*].

Unlike his father, O’Leary was neither a Liberal nor, despite being the acknowledged leader of the Conservatives in Kent County, a politician; he consistently refused to accept a nomination for parliament or legislature. Yet he lobbied hard for the Senate seat that fell vacant when fellow Irish Catholic John Costigan* died in 1916. The post was practically in the gift of Hazen, New Brunswick’s representative in Sir Robert Laird Borden’s cabinet, and O’Leary was among the leading contenders, but there were many claimants and competition was fierce. The choice eventually fell on Dr Thomas-Jean Bourque, an Acadian from Richibucto who was one of the Conservative mlas for Kent County. In 1923 O’Leary, as county organizer, was largely responsible for the wholly unexpected victory of Conservative Alexandre-Joseph Doucet in the Kent County federal by-election, a loss for the governing Liberals who had held the seat through five consecutive general elections, save for that of 1911.

With the exception of Archibald Fraser, Richard O’Leary was the outstanding New Brunswick businessman of his generation. He set the stage for industrialists Howard Perley Robinson*, with whom he worked to build NBTel, and Kenneth Colin Irving*, the latter another son of Kent County, whose early accomplishments with the Irving Oil Company O’Leary lived to see. Unlike the members of the Irving clan, however, O’Leary failed in his attempt at succession planning. He wanted his empire to remain entirely in his own family, but heavy losses and resultant borrowing during the final two years of his life mortgaged its future. To make matters worse, his only son, Henry Brittain, had not been involved in the business before joining the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1915. On Harry’s return in 1919, he was immediately made partner, but he lacked the experience and acumen necessary to manage effectively an enterprise as diverse and under-rationalized as his father’s. After Richard’s death the O’Learys retrenched, downsizing and, as a result, surviving until 1960.

Richard O’Leary’s achievement lives on in Richibucto’s Auberge O’Leary Inn. The mansion was built by his father for his mother but became identified with Richard, incontestably the larger figure. Home to three generations of the family, it saw them through to the end: Richard’s youngest and last surviving child, his unmarried daughter Eleanor, died there in 1982. With pardonable exaggeration Saint John’s New Freeman (the Roman Catholic diocesan newspaper) editorialized on the occasion of Richard’s death: “No family has done more for the Province of New Brunswick than that bearing the honoured name of O’Leary.”

Barry Cahill

The best account of Richard O’Leary’s life is the article by Sister Maura [Mary Power], “O’Leary, Richard (1865–1932),” Standard dict. of Canadian biog. (Roberts and Tunnell), vol.1: 393–95.

PANB, MC313 (Father Morriscy Medicine Company); RS65B, vol.H, 1931–1941, Richard O’Leary. Robert Reguly, “Evangeline avenged in N.B.,” Star Weekly (Toronto), 27 Aug. 1960: 10–12. Review (Richibucto, N.B.), 1889–1914. Can., 1912–1913 Dominion shell-fish fishery commission, Report and recommendations (Ottawa, 1913); House of Commons, Debates, 21 March 1919: 724. L.‑C. Daigle, Histoire de Saint-Louis-de-Kent: cent cinquante ans de vie paroissiale française en Acadie nouvelle (Moncton, N.B., 1948). A. T. Doyle, Front benches & back rooms: a story of corruption, muckraking, raw partisanship and intrigue in New Brunswick (Toronto, 1976). Noreen McBride, The O’Leary story (Dayton, Ohio, 1997). Myron MacDonald, Richibucto, river of fire: everything you need to know about Richibucto, the history, the people, the famous and the infamous (Richibucto, 1989). A. E. O’Leary, Rambles thro’ memory lane with characters I knew ([Richibucto], 1937). J.‑G. Rens, The invisible empire: a history of the telecommunications industry in Canada, 1846–1956, trans. Käthe Roth (Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 2001).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Barry Cahill, “O’LEARY, RICHARD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 22, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/o_leary_richard_16E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/o_leary_richard_16E.html
Author of Article:   Barry Cahill
Title of Article:   O’LEARY, RICHARD
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2020
Year of revision:   2020
Access Date:   February 22, 2024