By Shirley Murtha
As go the legs, so goes the horse, as any horse owner will tell you. A serious injury to a leg puts a horse’s life in the balance. To have a veterinarian who knows how to determine what the problem is, how to treat it and to do so with great compassion, is what horse owners hope for. Granby horse owners have been lucky for the past 38 years to have Dr. Liam O’Leary, whose recent retirement was felt deeply in our town, across the state and beyond.
When it comes to the tale of an Irish immigrant, Frank McCourt has nothing on Liam O’Leary. He was born on a farm in County Wexford, southeastern Ireland. When he was just 13 years old, he quit school to help take care of the farm, which included managing and training horses. A friend of the O’Learys was a man who leased horses to wealthy Americans who came to Ireland to fox hunt. One such gentleman (J. Ray Patterson) from Cheyney, Penn., expressed the desire to hire a young man to help out on his farm back in the States—someone who could not only raise hay and train horses, but also had the mechanical ability to keep the farm and mowing machinery going. When O’Leary heard about this, he realized that this was his ticket to a more opportunistic future, since, by tradition, his older brother would inherit the farm. Thus, in April 1967, the young Irish lad arrived in America, his papers saying “professional horseman.” Within five years, he achieved citizenship.
In caring for the animals on the farm, O’Leary realized that he had always been very concerned with ailing animals and he knew that what he really wanted was to be a veterinarian. Considering he didn’t have a high school education, this was a daunting prospect, but an Irish priest with whom he shared his dream became a mentor. The priest advised that O’Leary start by getting a high school diploma, which he initially pursued through a correspondence course. When it was clear that this process was going to take too long, he took a special preparatory course for the high school equivalency program, and received his diploma in 1969.
O’Leary was admitted to Cheyney State College (now University) where he completed the courses required for application to the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. Meanwhile, he continued to manage the Patterson farm: getting up at 4 a.m. to feed and turn out the horses, cleaning the stalls, and being on time for his 8 o’clock classes. He returned late in the day to do afternoon chores and study until he couldn’t keep his eyes open another minute.
The next piece of the puzzle fell in place when a horse boarder at the Patterson farm put in a good word for the Irish immigrant with the dean of the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School. There were 686 applicants for just 82 openings, but the admissions people saw something special in him (his work ethic for one thing) and he was accepted. He was 31 when he started veterinary school—the first three years in Philadelphia, the final one at the large animal facility at New Bolton Center.
In the summer before his junior year, O’Leary made a quick trip back to Ireland to marry his sweetheart Jo and bring her to America. Their romance had begun when they were in their early 20s and had been sustained through the mail until the wedding in 1973. Two years later, he graduated from veterinary school and was hired by the college as an intern in ambulatory services at New Bolton teaching senior students rotating on field calls.
In two years, the couple’s first daughter was on the way (there would be two more daughters) and they needed more income than the internship provided. New Bolton graduates Harry Werner and Peter Conserva had begun their careers at the veterinary practice in Granby (then known as Milkey and Davis after its founders Dr. Bob Milkey and Dr. Forrest Davis), so the staff at New Bolton was familiar with the Granby practice. When Dr. Conserva left to start his own practice, one of O’Leary’s mentors at New Bolton encouraged him to apply. He was hired by Milkey and Davis in July 1977 to run their equine program. It had been an amazing 10 years since the young man had set foot on American soil, and the achievement had been possible only because of his single-minded dedication to a dream most would have found too daunting to pursue.
Although versed in all aspects of equine health, O’Leary has always held a special interest in horse lameness and has always had an uncanny aptitude for figuring out what was wrong. He notes that diagnosis was much more difficult when he began his career for there was no ultrasound, no MRI, no digital x-rays and no computers to visualize all these techniques. A former diagnosis of a “bruised foot” can now be attributed to a specific torn ligament or tendon, a precise appropriate treatment can be determined and as reliable as possible prognosis offered.
In addition to being expert in the physical anatomy of the horse, O’Leary is also highly attuned to horse behavior. From personal experience, this writer can relate an incident when a client was distraught over what could possibly be wrong when her horse wouldn’t perform a certain dressage maneuver. Another vet was working hard on a diagnosis when O’Leary, who had observed the horse’s movement, walked by and said, “There’s nothing wrong with the horse; he just doesn’t want to do it,” and he was right.
O’Leary’s expertise became widely recognized, and it was not unusual for him to answer calls from across Connecticut, eastern New York and western Massachusetts. He was especially sought for his pre-purchase exams during which it is very important to determine if there is any leg or hoof problem before the papers are signed.
In his 38 years of practice, O’Leary has never had one of his own legs broken—a common occurrence when treating farm animals—but he has had broken ribs and did have a finger tip bitten off, not to mention a lifetime of back problems from all that leaning over and lifting horses feet off the ground. Despite this, he has enjoyed his career and is fond of saying “America is the greatest country in the world.” Where else could an Irish boy with very little education follow his dream and become a revered member of a demanding profession?