John Boyle O'Reilly

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John Boyle O'Reilly
John Boyle O'Reilly cph.3a38519.jpg
O'Reilly in 1871
Born (1844-06-28)June 28, 1844
Dowth, County Meath, Ireland
Died August 10, 1890(1890-08-10) (aged 46)
Hull, Massachusetts, U.S.
Resting place Holyhood Cemetery, Massachusetts, U.S.
Occupation Journalist, poet, fiction writer
Spouse Mary Agnes Murphy (m.1872-90; his death)
Children Mary, Eliza, Agnes and Blanid
John Boyle O'Reilly cph.3a38519.jpg

John Boyle O'Reilly (28 June 1844 – 10 August 1890) 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 in Dowth, the third child of a headmaster and a schoolteacher. When O'Reilly was 15 he moved to Lancashire and lived with his aunt and uncle, there he became a reporter with a local newspaper and joined the 11th Lancashire Rifle Volunteers in 1861. He returned to Ireland in 1863 and enlisted with the 10th Hussars in Dublin however after realising the way the British were treating his fellow people he left the army and joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood around 1865. In 1866 O'Reilly along with many other members of the Brotherhood were arrested and put on trial for treason, O'Reilly was found guilty and sentenced to death however cause of his young age (22) his sentence was reduced to 20 years penal servitude, he spent a year and a half in some English prisons before being transported to Western Australia in 1867, arriving in 1868. A month after arriving O'Reilly was moved down to the town of Bunbury where he started receiving attention for protesting the chopping down of a tree. A year after arriving O'Reilly decided to escape from the colony with the help of a local catholic priest and some farmers from the nearby town of Dardanup. In mid February 1869 O'Reilly absconded from his convict camp and made his way towards the Leschenault Peninsula where he would have to wait for the ship to arrive. After around 2 weeks and a delay O'Reilly escaped on the Gazelle for America arriving there in November 1869.

O'Reilly moved to Boston and became a well-known figure in the town where he became involved in civil rights, sports and also causes for Irish-Americans He also became part owner of The Pilot newspaper. He published 5 books of poetry Songs from the Southern Seas (1873), Songs, Legends and Ballads (1878), The Statues in the Block (1881) and In Bohemia (1886), he also published a novel Moondyne (1879) based on the convict of the same name and O'Reilly's experiences in Western Australia, it would become his most popular work. He also wrote one last book of poems titled Watchwords, which was released after his death. O'Reilly died in 1890 from heart failure after overdosing on his wife's medication, his death caused large grief in the Boston community.

O'Reilly's literature and work with civil rights have been celebrated throughout the years.

Early life[edit]

O'Reilly was born to William David O'Reilly (1808-1871) and Eliza Boyle (1815-1869) at Dowth, 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, 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.

Irish Republican Brotherhood and arrest: 1865–67[edit]

Photograph of imprisoned O'Reilly, 1866

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.

In February 1866 O'Reilly along with many other Fenian's were arrested and sent to Arbor Hill military prison. On June 27, 1866 (the eve of his 22nd birthday) O'Reilly's trial by court martial began, he was charged with treason. He was found guilty and sentenced to death, however due to his age the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and later 20 years penal servitude.

From that point on he spent around 15 months in some of England's most notorious prisons such as Millbank, Pentonville and Dartmoor, during this time O'Reilly attempted to escape twice but was quickly recaptured and placed in solitary confinement.

Transportation and life in Australia: 1868–69[edit]

On 10 October 1867, O'Reilly was placed in chains and marched off to the convict ship Hougoumont[1] along with 61 other Fenian prisoners and 218 common criminals for transportation to the British colony of Western Australia.

Midway through the voyage, O'Reilly and another prisoner John Flood, established a handwritten newspaper called The Wild Goose which contained poetry, stories and anecdotes from members of the ship's convict fraternity. Seven editions were produced, and the single copy of the original set survives and is held in the State Library of New South Wales collection. 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.

One day while clearing the bush in Bunbury to make way for a new road, O'Reilly refused to be a member of a party of convict-road gang ordered to cut down a huge tuart tree standing in the way of the new road. O'Reilly's action to save the tree soon came to the attention of the warder's wife Selina. And it wasn't too long before the word had spread throughout the district that a convict has disobeyed orders. Eventually, the tree was saved and the new road given a slight curve around the tree. [2]

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.[3]

According to letter discovered in 2015, Jessie Woodman became pregnant with O'Reilly's child (this has been said to be a factor in O'Reilly's suicide attempt),[4] most accounts say that Woodman had the child after O'Reilly escaped and it died shortly after. Woodman's father Henry eventually found out about the relationship and married Jessie off to local 22-year old George Pickersgill in March 1869 (O'Reilly was either still hiding from authorities or on his way to America during this time). [5]


While in Bunbury, O'Reilly formed a strong friendship with the local Roman Catholic priest, Father Patrick McCabe. Late in 1868, 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 James Maguire, a local settler from the 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 Martin 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.

Shortly after O'Reilly arrived in Philadelphia he went to New York where he was invited to deliver a lecture in the Cooper Institute which he delivered on December 16, 1869 while there he recounted details of the escape. O'Reilly quickly realised that New York did not offer any field for his ambitions and he was advised to move to Boston, which he did arriving there on January 2, 1870.

Early years in Boston: 1870-75[edit]

O'Reilly settled in Charlestown, a neighbourhood in Boston, which had a large Irish community, and soon found work on the newspaper The Pilot, started by a Jesuit Catholic bishop.[6] His first major assignment was coverage of the Fenian convention in New York City 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[edit]

On August 15, 1872 O'Reilly married Mary Murphy (1850-1897), a journalist who wrote for the Young Crusader under the name of Agnes Smiley. They had four daughters: Mary, Eliza, Agnes and Blanid. Their third daughter, 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, Agnes 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.

Catalpa rescue[edit]

Main article: Catalpa Rescue

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.

The escape was successful and O'Reilly was given the news of the escape in June 1876.


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 his later years, O'Reilly became prone to illness, and suffered from bouts of insomnia. He published his final poem "The Useless Ones" in The Pilot on 1 Feb 1890 [7]

Death and funeral[edit]

On August 9, 1890 O'Reilly took an early boat to his residence in Hull, Massachusetts, he had been suffering from bouts of insomnia during this time. That evening he took a long walk with his brother-in-law John R. Murphy hoping that physical fatigue would induce the needed sleep.

Later on that night he took some of his wife's sleeping medicine, which contained chloral hydrate.

On the morning of August, 10 around 2-3am his wife woke up and found O'Reilly sitting in a chair, with one hand resting on the table near a book, and a cigar in the other. O'Reilly was found to be unconscious, His wife sent a servant for the family's physician Dr Litchfield, He spent nearly an hour trying to revive him, but O'Reilly passed away shortly before 5am.[8] [9] Public announcements attributed O'Reilly's death to heart failure, but the official death register claims "accidental poisoning".

O'Reilly's sudden death received an outpouring of grief and tributes from the Boston community and also globally, The Pilot published a full biography of O'Reilly's life in their August 16th edition, Cardinal James Gibbons said upon hearing the news "It is a public calamity—not only a loss to the country, but a loss to the Church, and to humanity in general.", Grover Cleveland wrote "I have heard with sincere regret that John Boyle O'Reilly is dead. I regarded him as a strong and able man, entirely devoted to any cause he espoused, unselfish in his activity, true and warm in his friendship, and patriotic in his enthusiasm.", George Frisbie Hoar sent a telegram to O'Reilly's wife saying "Accept my profound sympathy in your great loss and the great public loss. Your husband combined, as no other man, some of the noblest qualities of the Irishman and the American.",

His parish priest Rev. J. W. McMahon of St. Mary's Church, Charlestown said "I have always had a great admiration for the man ever since he came to my parish as a member. As for his career before that time that, too, commands my respect and admiration. He was a single-minded, open-hearted man—a man who loved liberty for itself, and who wished everybody to have a fair chance. He was a good husband, a good father, a good Catholic and a good man.", Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr wrote "John Boyle O'Reilly was a man of heroic mold and nature; brave, adventurous, patriotic," enthusiastic, with the perfervidum ingenium, which belongs quite as much to the Irish as to the Scotch. We have been proud of him as an adopted citizen, feeling always that his native land could ill spare so noble a son. His poems show what he might have been had he devoted himself to letters. His higher claim is that he was a true and courageous lover of his country and of his fellow, men". [10] Boston mayor Thomas N Hart along with many other identities in Boston and Ireland also paid tribute.

His funeral on August 13 held at St Mary's Church in Charlestown was attended by thousands. The streets near the church were lined with mourners. The bearers were O'Donovan Rossa, Jeremiah O' Donovan, Michael Fitzgerald, James A. Wrenn, Capt. Lawrence O'Brien, and Denis Cashman. His wife did not attend the funeral due to grief and was unable to leave her bed.[11]

O'Reilly was originally buried at Calvary Cemetery in Roxbury, but in November 1890 his remains were exhumed and moved to Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline [12]

Legacy and honours[edit]

  • At the dedication for the memorial to Crispus Attucks in 1888, a poem written by O'Reilly about Attucks was read aloud.[13][14]
  • 1896, a multi-figure bronze sculpture in O'Reilly's honour was created by Daniel Chester French and erected on the Fenway in Boston.
    John Boyle O'Reilly monument, Boston, by Daniel Chester French, 1896
  • 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.
  • Around 1987 The John Boyle O'Reilly Association of Bunbury, Western Australia was founded [15]
  • In 2002 an interpretative display was opened for John Boyle O'Reilly, in Western Australia on the Leschenault Peninsula Conservation Park, from where he escaped to America.[16]
  • In April 2011 The John Boyle O'Reilly Association was established in Netterville his ancestral home, near Drogheda, Ireland.
  • J.B. O'Reilly's pub in West Leederville, Western Australia

Pardon request[edit]

In 1999 then Western Australian opposition leader, Geoff Gallop made an unsuccessful request to British Prime Minister and friend Tony Blair to grant O'Reilly a pardon.


In popular culture[edit]

  • O'Reilly is said to have been US President John F. Kennedy's favourite poet.
  • In 1913 Melbourne-based silent film company Lincoln-Cass Film Company produced Moondyne a silent film based on O'Reilly's novel. It was released in September 1913.
  • 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).
  • In 2016 a short film based on O'Reilly's time waiting for the Vigilant to arrive titled In Search of the Vigilant was made by the John Boyle O'Reilly Association of Bunbury and was filmed in the Leschenault Peninsula and other parts of the Bunbury area.[18] The 30 minute short film premiered in Bunbury on March 25 2017.[19]
  • In 2017 Western Australian musician Latehorse (Shane Thomas) released a song about O'Reilly's escape titled A Dreamer Forever [20][21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Hougoumont passenger list". Retrieved 14 January 2006. 
  2. ^ "Convict Years". John Boyle O'Reilly Association. Retrieved 19 April 2017. 
  3. ^ Evans pp. 128–31
  4. ^ "John Boyle O'Reilly". John Boyle O'Reilly. Retrieved 19 April 2017. 
  5. ^ "John Boyle O'Reilly". John Boyle O'Reilly. Retrieved 2017-04-23. 
  6. ^ "A Brief History of the 'Pilot'", Information Wanted, Boston College Database, accessed 16 April 2011
  7. ^ Zealand, National Library of New. "Papers Past | IN MEMORIAM. (New Zealand Tablet, 1890-09-26)". Retrieved 2017-04-11. 
  8. ^ Keneally, Thomas. The Great Shame: A Story of the Irish in the Old World and the New. 
  9. ^ Zealand, National Library of New. "Papers Past | JOHN BOYLE O'REILLY. (Boston Pilot, August 16.) (New Zealand Tablet, 1890-09-26)". Retrieved 2017-04-11. 
  10. ^'Reilly_Chapter_19.html
  11. ^'Reilly_Chapter_19.html
  12. ^ Keneally, Thomas. The Great Shame: A Story of the Irish in the Old World and the New. 
  13. ^ Roche, James Jeffrey (1 January 1891). "Life of John Boyle O'Reilly". Mershon – via Google Books. 
  14. ^ "A Memorial of Crispus Attucks, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, Samuel Gray, and Patrick Carr: From the City of Boston". order of the City Council. 1 January 1889 – via Google Books. 
  15. ^ "John Boyle O'Reilly Association -". John Boyle O'Reilly Association. Retrieved 2017-04-05. 
  16. ^
  17. ^ An annotated edition of this work is available here through University College Cork's Corpus of Electronic Texts (CELT).
  18. ^ Media, Australian Community Media - Fairfax (2016-10-21). "Short film about South West convict". Bunbury Mail. Retrieved 2017-04-04. 
  19. ^ In Search of the Vigilant (2017), retrieved 2017-05-10 
  20. ^ A Dreamer Forever, retrieved 2017-04-04 
  21. ^ Latehorse Music (2017-05-02), Latehorse - A Dreamer Forever, retrieved 2017-05-04 


  • Evans, Anthony G. (1997). Fanatic Heart: A Life of John Boyle O'Reilly 1844–1890. Nedlands, Western Australia: University of Western Australia Press. ISBN 1-875560-82-3. 
  • Kenneally, Ian. From The Earth, A Cry: the story of John Boyle O’Reilly (The Collins Press, Ireland) 2011. ISBN 9781848891319
  • Walsh, Francis Robert. "The 'Boston Pilot': A Newspaper For The Irish Immigrant, 1829-1908" (PhD dissertation, Boston University (ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1968) online]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]