John Boyle O'Reilly

John Boyle O'Reilly (28 June 1844 - 10 August 1890) was an Irish-born poet and novelist. As a youth in Ireland he was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, for which crime he was transported to Western Australia. After escaping to the United States, he became a prominent spokesperson for Irish sentiment and culture, through his editorship of the Boston newspaper The Pilot, his prolific writing, and his lecture tours.

John Boyle O'Reilly was born on 28 June 1844 in Dowth, near Drogheda in Ireland. Ireland was at that time a part of the United Kingdom, and many Irish people bitterly resented what they saw as English rule, and there was a strong nationalist movement. O'Reilly's family was fiercely nationalistic, and 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, and O'Reilly took his place as apprentice at a local newspaper. At the age of fifteen, he moved to Preston to live with his aunt and uncle, and again 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 the planning and execution of an armed uprising against British rule. He then turned his energies to the recruitment of 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 hide their existence from 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 (1867)).

For his part in the Fenian conspiracy, O'Reilly was sentenced to twenty years penal servitude. He served nearly two years in English prisons, before boarding the convict ship Hougoumont for transportation to the British colony of Western Australia. After arriving in Fremantle, Western Australia on 9 January 1869, O'Reilly was initially admitted to the Convict Establishment (now Fremantle Prison), but after a month was transferred to Bunbury to join a party of convicts who were building the BunburyVasse road.

On arriving in Bunbury, O'Reilly quickly developed a good relationship with his warder Henry Woodman, and was appointed probationary convict constable: an assistant to the warder whose main responsibilities were record and account keeping, ordering of stores, and other minor administrative duties. He was also frequently used as a messenger, which required him to travel regularly between the work camp and the district convict establishment in Bunbury. Apparently the warder also used O'Reilly to maintain contact with his family, for O'Reilly became a regular visitor to the Woodman family home, and at some point commenced a romantic liaison with Woodman's daughter. Evidently this ended badly: poetry written by O'Reilly around this time expresses great agony of mind, and hints at romantic causes. On 27 December 1869, 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 17 February 1870, 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 then rowed out of the Leschenault Inlet into the Indian Ocean, and north about twelve miles up the coast. O'Reilly then hid in the dunes, and awaited 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 sea, but the captain reneged on the agreement, and the Vigilant sailed off without acknowledging the rowboat. O'Reilly then had no choice but to return to the shore, and once again hide in the dunes while his friends tried to make arrangements with another ship. After two weeks of hiding, an arrangement was struck 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 was taken on board. With him was a ticket of leave convict named James Bowman, who had heard of the intended escape, and had blackmailed the conspirators into allowing him to escape with O'Reilly.

McCabe had arranged for the Gazelle to take O'Reilly only as far as Java, but adverse weather prevented the ship finding safe passage through the Sunda Strait. Instead, the captain decided to sail for Roderiquez, Mauritius, which was 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 had on board an escaped convict from Western Australia, and demanded that he be given up. The crew immediately 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, and it was decided that if possible O'Reilly should 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 his compatriots.

O'Reilly settled in Boston, and soon found work on the newspaper the Pilot. 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 complete disaster, and the experience of covering it prompted O'Reilly to reverse his opinion on military Fenianism. Thereafter he rejected militancy, and sought to achieve Ireland's independence by raising the status and self-esteem of the Irish people.

O'Reilly proclaimed his views through his prolific writing, his lecture tours, and his work in the Pilot. His views were 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 became part-owner.

O'Reilly published his first book of poems, Songs from the Southern Seas, in 1873. Over the next fifteen years, he would publish another three collections of poetry, a novel, and a treatise on health and exercise. His poetry was extremely popular at the time, and he was often commissioned to write poems for important and commemorative occasions. Most of his earlier work is nowadays dismissed as mere 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 still serving time in Western Australia. The initial plan had been to storm Fremantle Prison and rescue the Fenians by force of arms; O'Reilly rejected that plan, and instead suggested that the rescue party pick up the escapees according to a prearranged plan. He also suggested the purchase of a whaling ship, which would be seen to be on 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 some 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 was killed by an overdose of chloral hydrate, then it is possible that he took his life, or that he was a victim of medical malpractice.

Works of John Boyle O'Reilly
  • Songs from the Southern Seas (1873) a collection of poems
  • Songs, Legends and Ballads (1878) a collection of poems
  • Moondyne (1880) a novel based on O'Reilly's experiences as a convict in Western Australia
  • The Statues in the Block (1881) a collection of poems
  • In Bohemia (1886) a collection of poems
  • The Ethics of Boxing and Manly Sport (1888) a treatise on health and physical exercise, later republished as Athletics and Manly Sport
  • The song Van Diemen's Land on U2's Rattle and Hum album refers to, and is dedicated to O'Reilly.
  • O'Reily is said to have been John F. Kennedy's favorite poet.
  • Evans, Anthony G. (1997). Fanatic Heart: A Life of John Boyle O'Reilly 18441890. Nedlands, Western Australia: University of Western Australia Press. ISBN 1-875560-82-3.

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