John Boyle O'Reilly was an Irish-born poet, journalist and fiction writer. As a youth in Ireland, he was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, or Fenians, for which he was transported to Western Australia. After escaping to the United States, he became a prominent spokesperson for the Irish community and culture, through his editorship of the Boston newspaper The Pilot, his prolific writing, and his lecture tours.
O'Reilly was born at Dowth Castle, County Meath, near Drogheda in Ireland at the onset of the Great Irish Famine. Ireland was at that time a part of the United Kingdom, and many Irish people bitterly resented British rule. There was a strong nationalist movement. O'Reilly's relatively wealthy family was fiercely patriotic; his mother was closely related to John Allen, who had played an important role in Robert Emmet's rising in 1803.
The son of a schoolmaster, O'Reilly received a good early education. When he was about thirteen, his older brother contracted tuberculosis(TB), and O'Reilly took his place as apprentice at a local newspaper. At the age of fifteen, he moved to Preston, Lancashire to live with his aunt and uncle, and took up work on a local newspaper. In June 1861, O'Reilly enrolled in the 11th Lancashire Rifle Volunteers, with which he received some military training. He must have enjoyed military life, because on returning to Ireland in 1863, he enlisted with the 10th Hussars in Dublin.
Some time in 1865, O'Reilly joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood, then commonly known as the "Fenians", a secret society of rebels dedicated to an armed uprising against British rule. He turned his energies to recruiting more Fenians within his regiment, bringing in up to 80 new members. By late 1865, the Fenians had become such a large and popular movement that they could no longer evade detection by the British authorities. The government made a number of raids, seized records, and gathered evidence from informers. Many Fenians were arrested, including O'Reilly (see Fenian Rising).
For his part in the Fenian conspiracy, O'Reilly was sentenced to twenty years' penal servitude. It appears he was originally sentenced to death but his sentence was commuted to 20 years. He served nearly two years in English prisons before being put aboard the convict ship Hougoumont for transportation to the British colony of Western Australia. The Hougoumont's passage was the last convict ship transport to Western Australia. After arriving in Fremantle on 9 January 1868, O'Reilly was admitted to the Convict Establishment (now Fremantle Prison), but after a month he was transferred to Bunbury. He was assigned to a party of convicts tasked with building the Bunbury–Vasse road.
At Bunbury, O'Reilly quickly developed a good relationship with his warder Henry Woodman, and was appointed probationary convict constable. As assistant to the warder, he did record and account keeping, ordering of stores, and other minor administrative duties. He was frequently used as a messenger, which required him to travel regularly between the work camp and the district convict prison in Bunbury. The warder apparently used O'Reilly to maintain contact with his family, for the prisoner became a regular visitor to the Woodman family home, and at some point began a romantic liaison with Woodman's daughter Jessie. This ended badly, at least for O'Reilly; he wrote poetry expressing his agony of mind, and hints at romantic causes. On 27 December 1868, O'Reilly attempted suicide by cutting the veins of his left arm. After falling into a faint from loss of blood, he was discovered by another convict, and his life was saved.
While in Bunbury, O'Reilly formed a strong friendship with the local Catholic priest, Father Patrick McCabe. Late in 1869, McCabe offered to arrange for O'Reilly to escape the colony. By February, McCabe's plan was ready for execution. On 18 February 1869, O'Reilly absconded from his work party, and met up with a party of Irish settlers from the local town of Dardanup. Together they rode to the Collie River where a rowboat was waiting for them. They rowed out of the Leschenault Inlet into the Indian Ocean, and north about twelve miles up the coast. O'Reilly hid in the dunes, awaiting the departure from Bunbury of the American whaling ship Vigilant, which Father McCabe had arranged would take him on board. The ship was sighted the next day, and the party rowed out to it, but the captain reneged on the agreement, and the Vigilant sailed off without acknowledging the people in the rowboat. O'Reilly had to return to the shore and hide again while his friends tried to make arrangements with another ship. After two weeks, they succeeded in making a deal with the captain of the American whaler Gazelle. O'Reilly and his friends met the Gazelle three miles out to sea on 2 March, and he was taken on board. With him was a ticket of leave convict named James Bowman, who had heard of the intended escape. He had blackmailed the conspirators into allowing him to join O'Reilly.
McCabe had arranged for the Gazelle to take O'Reilly only as far as Java, but adverse weather prevented the ship's finding safe passage through the Sunda Strait. The captain decided to sail for Roderiquez, Mauritius, at that time a British colony. As soon as the Gazelle arrived at Roderiquez, it was boarded by a magistrate and a contingent of police, who claimed to have information that the Gazelle carried an escaped convict from Western Australia, and demanded that he be given up. The crew gave up Bowman, but denied having O'Reilly on board. The Gazelle's next port of call was to be Saint Helena, another British colony. The captain recommended that O'Reilly transfer to another ship before then. On 29 July, the Gazelle met the American cargo vessel Sapphire on the high seas, and O'Reilly changed ships. The Sapphire arrived at Liverpool on 13 October, and O'Reilly transferred to another American ship, the Bombay. The Bombay docked in Philadelphia on 23 November 1869, where O'Reilly was enthusiastically welcomed by Irish compatriots.
O'Reilly settled in Charlestown, a neighborhood in Boston, which had a large Irish community, and soon found work on the newspaper the Pilot, started by a Jesuit Catholic priest. His first major assignment was coverage of the Fenian convention in New York in 1870, and the subsequent third Fenian invasion of Canada. The invasion was a disaster, and his experience of covering it prompted O'Reilly to reverse his opinion on military Fenianism. In rejecting militancy, he turned to achieving Ireland's independence by raising the status and self-esteem of its people.
O'Reilly expressed his views through his prolific writing, his lecture tours, and his work on the Pilot. He was well received by Boston's large Irish-born population, and the Pilot's readership grew until it was one of the most-read newspapers in the country. O'Reilly soon became its editor, and eventually part-owner.
Marriage and Family
In 1872 O'Reilly married Mary Murphy, a journalist who wrote for the Young Crusader under the name of Agnes Smiley. They had four daughters: Mollie, Eliza, Agnes and Blanid. Agnes O'Reilly went on to marry the philosopher William Ernest Hocking soon after he earned his PhD from Harvard, where he would later teach. A decade later when they returned to Cambridge, Mary started an open-air school that developed into Shady Hill School. It continues today near Harvard Square. Their three children were Richard, Joan, and Hester.
O'Reilly published his first book of poems, Songs from the Southern Seas, in 1873. Over the next fifteen years, he published three collections of poetry, a novel, and a treatise on health and exercise. His poetry was extremely popular, and he was often commissioned to write poems for important commemorative occasions. By the late twentieth century, most of his earlier work was dismissed as popular verse, but some of his later, more introspective poetry, such as his best known poem, "The Cry of the Dreamer", is still highly regarded.
In 1875, John Devoy sought O'Reilly's advice on how the Clan na Gael might rescue the six military Fenians serving time in Western Australia. The first plan was to storm Fremantle Prison and rescue the Fenians by force of arms; O'Reilly rejected that. He suggested that a rescue party pick up the escapees according to a prearranged plan. He also recommended their buying a whaling ship for the purpose, as it could have an appearance of legitimate business in Fremantle. O'Reilly's plan was adopted, and ultimately led to the Catalpa rescue.
In his later years, O'Reilly became prone to illness, and suffered from bouts of insomnia. Late in the evening of 9 August 1890, while suffering from insomnia, he took some of his wife's sleeping medicine, which contained chloral hydrate. In the early hours of the morning, he was found dead. There remains doubt as to the cause of death. Public announcements attributed O'Reilly's death to heart failure, but the official death register claims "accidental poisoning". If O'Reilly died by an overdose of chloral hydrate, then it is possible that he took his life, or misused his wife's medicine.
Legacy and Honors
1896, a multi-figure bronze sculpture in O'Reilly's honor was created by Chester Daniel French and erected on the Fenway in Boston.
Named for him, the John Boyle O' Reilly Club in Springfield, Massachusetts celebrated their 125th anniversary in 2005.
In the early 1900s, Boyle O'Reilly Terrace, an estate built on the north side of Drogheda, was named after him.
In 2002 an interpretative dispay was opened for John Boyle O'Reilly, in Western Australia on the Leschenault Peninsula Conservation Park, from where he escaped to America
In April 2011 The John Boyle O'Reilly Association was established in Netterville his ancestral home, near Drogheda, Ireland.
In Popular Culture
O'Reilly is said to have been US President John F. Kennedy's favorite poet.
The song "Van Diemen's Land" on U2's Rattle and Hum (1988) album refers to and is dedicated to O'Reilly.
The county Clare folk singer Sean Tyrrell has set a number of O'Reilly's poems to music. A trilogy was included on his 1994 album, Cry of a Dreamer.
The musician and local historian Brendan Woods wrote The Catalpa, a play about the 1876 escape from Fremantle Prison. It premiered on 15 November 2006 to a sell-out audience at Fremantle Town Hall and ran until 25 November. The play was based on the diaries of Denis Cashman, with the poetry of John Boyle O'Reilly set to music and dance, supported by a five-part musical ensemble.
Woods released a CD entitled: John Boyle O'Reilly & The Fenian Escape from Fremantle Gaol (2006).