Leonard was born John Keyes Byrne in Dublin, to an unmarried woman named Annie Byrne. He was adopted as a baby by a gardener and his wife, Nicholas and Margaret Keyes and raised in Dalkey. He won a scholarship to grammar school and then worked in a film rental office and the Irish Land Commission. He was involved in amateur dramatics, including writing plays.
He sent one play to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin which was rejected, but his second attempt, under the pen name Hugh Leonard, in 1956, was successful. In the 1960s he moved to London, but returned to live in Ireland in 1970 after a change in the tax laws. He is the most commercially successful playwright in modern Ireland. His many plays include Stephen D, Patrick Pearse Motel, Da, and Widow's Peak. He writes mostly for the stage, but has also written and adapted books for television.
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