Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/O'Reilly, John Boyle

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O'REILLY, JOHN BOYLE (1844–1890), Irish revolutionist. and author, born on 28 June 1814, at Dowth Castle on the Boyne four miles from Drogheda,was son of William David (O’Reilly,who for thirty-five years was master of the national school attached to the Netterville institution for widows and orphans at Dowt h Castle. His mother, Eliza Boyle, was the daughter of a Dublin tradesman. The family consisted of five daughters and three sons. John received the rudiments of his education from his father. His elder brother, William, was hound as an apprentice compositor in 1854 in the ‘Argus’ newspaper office. Drogheda, but after six months he was obliged to leave on account of ill-health, and, in order that the premium of 50l. might not be lost, John, although only eleven, was sent to fill his brother's place.

The death of the proprietor of the newspaper brought the apprenticeship to an end in 1858. In the autumn of 1859 he went to Preston, where his mother's sister resided, and obtained employment as a compositor on the ‘Guardian’ newspaper, published in that town. Mastering shorthand, he was soon promoted to the position of reporter. He left Preston for Ireland in March 1863, and in the following May enlisted as a trooper in the 10th hussars—the ‘Prince of Wales's own’—which, under the command of Colonel Valentine Baker, was stationed in Drogheda at the time. O'Reilly was then in his nineteenth year. He had previously become a member of the Irish republican brotherhood—the fenian organisation—and he enlisted in the army as an agent of that association, for the purpose of securing the adhesion of the Irish soldiers to the revolutionary movement. O'Reilly soon established himself as a general favourite in the regiment. ‘Treasonable songs and ballads,’ writes Mr. Jeffrey Roche in his biography of O'Reilly, ‘were chanted in the quarters of his troop (D), and spread amongst other companies. With boyish recklessness, O'Reilly embroidered rebel devices on the underside of his saddle-cloth and in the lining of his military overcoat.’ In 1865, the year in which the government began operations against the fenians by seizing in September their newspaper, the ‘Irish People,’ the 10th hussars were quartered at Island Bridge Barracks, Dublin. The work of winning recruits in the army for the revolutionary movement was controlled by John Devoy, afterwards a journalist in New York, who, in the capacity of fenian organiser, passed through as many as three regiments. Devoy states that he succeeded in sapping the loyalty of all the regiments of the Dublin garrison in 1865, except the 10th hussars, the men of which were mainly English; but that, thanks to the exertions of O'Reilly, that regiment too became disaffected in due course. ‘He brought in some eighty men, sworn in,’ writes Devoy of O'Reilly, ‘had them divided into two prospective troops, obtained possession of the key of an unused postern gate, and had everything ready to take his men, armed and mounted, out of barracks at a given signal’ (Life, Poems, and Speeches of John Boyle O'Reilly, p. 16). Early in 1866 the authorities discovered that the garrisons throughout Ireland were honeycombed with ‘circles’ or lodges of the Irish republican brotherhood, and most of the disaffected Irish regiments were removed from the country.

O'Reilly's part in the movement was soon suspected, and he was arrested at Island Bridge Barracks on 13 Feb. 1866. On 27 June 1866, the eve of his twenty-second birthday, his trial by court-martial began at the Royal Barracks, Dublin. The charge against the prisoner was ‘for having in Dublin, in January 1866, come to the knowledge of an intended mutiny in her majesty's forces in Ireland, and not giving information of the said intended mutiny to his commanding officer.’ After a twelve days' trial O'Reilly was convicted, and on 9 July was sentenced to be shot. This sentence, however, was commuted to twenty years' penal servitude.

In October 1867, after visiting many English convict prisons and making several ineffectual attempts to escape, O'Reilly was despatched to Western Australia, and was attached to the convict settlement of Bunbury. Owing to his good conduct, he was appointed a constable to aid the officers of the settlement; but in April 1869 he managed, with the aid of the Roman catholic pastor, Patrick McCabe, to escape on an American whaler, the Gazelle.

O'Reilly spent seven months on board the whaler, on a cruise in the Indian Ocean, when, meeting with the American barque Sapphire, bound to Liverpool from Bombay, he became a seaman on board, and was thus conveyed to England. In November 1869 he reached the United States. O'Reilly's first book of poems, ‘Songs from the Southern Seas’ (Boston, 1873), is dedicated ‘to Captain David R. Gifford of the whaling bark Gazelle of New Bedford.’

O'Reilly settled in Boston as a journalist, and became editor and part proprietor of the ‘Pilot,’ published in that town, and one of the most influential Roman catholic and Irish-American newspapers in the United States. He took part in the ‘fenian invasion’ of Canada, under General John O'Neill, in June 1870. Another fenian expedition with which O'Reilly was prominently concerned was more successful. This was the rescue of all the military political prisoners—O'Reilly's comrades of 1866—from the convict settlements of Western Australia in April 1876. The expedition of the American whaler Catalpa (Captain Anthony), which conveyed the prisoners to the United States, was secretly organised by O'Reilly, assisted by John Devoy and John Breslin. It cost twenty-five thousand dollars.

But O'Reilly was not merely an Irish revolutionist; he was also a man of letters, and he soon filled a distinguished place in the literary society of Boston. He was selected to write odes in commemoration of many national celebrations, such as the reunion of the army of the Potomac at Detroit in June 1885, at which General Grant presided, when he read his poem entitled ‘America;’ and the university of Notre Dame, Indiana, conferred on him the honorary degree of doctor of laws.

O'Reilly died on 10 Aug. 1890, at Boston, from an overdose of chloral, administered by himself as a cure for insomnia. He was interred at Holyhood Cemetery, Brookline, Massachusetts.

O'Reilly's poetical works are: ‘Songs from the Southern Seas,’ Boston, Massachusetts, 1873; ‘Songs, Legends, and Ballads,’ Boston, 1878; ‘The Statues in the Block, and other Poems,’ 1881; ‘In Bohemia,’ 1886. As a novelist, O'Reilly will be remembered as the author of ‘Moondyne,’ a powerful and dramatic story of convict life in Western Australia, which was published at Boston, Massachusetts (1880), and ran through twelve editions. He also wrote, in collaboration with Robert Grant, Frederick J. Stimson, and J. T. Wheelwright, a satirical novel entitled ‘The King's Man: a Tale of To-morrow’ (Boston, 1884). An athlete himself, and a keen lover of sport of all kinds, he prepared a volume entitled ‘Ethics of Boxing and Manly Sports’ (Boston, Massachusetts, 1888); and also edited ‘The Poetry and Songs of Ireland,’ New York, 1889. In 1891, the year after his death, a complete edition of his ‘Poems and Speeches’ was published by his widow, with a ‘Life’ by James Jeffrey Roche, and an introduction by Cardinal Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore. His poetry as a rule is rugged in form, but shows considerable power.

[Life, Poems, and Speeches of John Boyle O'Reilly, Boston, Mass., 1891; Irish and Irish-American newspapers of August 1890; and personal information.]

M. MacD.