Life of John Boyle O'Reilly/Chapter 1
JOHN BOYLE O'REILLY.
DROGHEDA is a town with a history, and, as it is an Irish town, the history is mainly a tragedy. Tradition says that it was the landing place of the Milesians, the last and greatest of the early invaders of Ireland. A more enduring glory attaches to it as the place where St. Patrick landed when he came down from the North country to brave the power of the Druids, at the royal seat of Tara. Its name, "Drochead-atha," signifies the Bridge of the Ford, or, as it was Latinized, "Urbs Pontana." Danes and Normans successively conquered and occupied the old town. It lies on both sides of the river Boyne, about four miles from its mouth, and two and one-half miles from Old-Bridge, the scene of the famous battle between the forces of King James and those of William of Orange.
Forty years before that disastrous fight, Drogheda had suffered at the hands of a conqueror more ruthless than Dane or Norman. In 1649 the English nation kept public fast to invoke God's blessing upon Cromwell's forces, "Against the Papists and others, the enemies of the Parliament of England in Ireland." The Protector came with the Bible in one hand and the sword in the other, not, as a Mohammed, to offer the choice of religion or death, but in the name of the one to inflict the other. He laid siege to the town on September 2. At five o'clock on the afternoon of the 10th he effected a breach, and, after being twice repulsed, carried the place by assault. The defenders laid down their arms, on promise of quarter, whereupon the victors fell upon the defenseless people, massacring in cold blood twenty-eight hundred men, women, and children. Thirty persons were taken prisoners, to be eventually sold as slaves in the Barbadoes. The horrible massacre lasted during five days. The Irish vocabulary is not wanting in maledictory forms, but its bitterest imprecation is "The curse of Cromwell!" Banishment and confiscation were the mildest punishments inflicted on the vanquished. The Irish fought with desperate valor, but did not forget to be generous, even to a merciless foe.
Conspicuous among them for generous and chivalrous acts was one chieftain, O'Reilly of Cavan, who not only gave quarter to his enemy in battle, but even sent his prisoners in safety within the English lines. The O'Reillys were lords of Cavan for over a thousand years. They traced their descent from Milesius, through O'Ragheallaigh, whose name is Anglicized into O'Rahilly, O'Rielly, O'Reilly, Rahilly, Raleigh, Ridley, etc. The derivation of the name is uncertain, but the best authority says it is from Radh, "a saying," and Eloach, "learned," "skillful." The motto of the family is "Fortitudo et prudentia," the crest being an oak tree with a snake entwined.
The O'Reillys were powerful princes, and for ages held the Anglo-Normans at bay, under
The supreme leader of fierce encounters,
O'Reilly, lord of bucklers red.
Their chiefs were elected by their people, and crowned on the hill of Seantoman, between the towns of Cavan and Bally-baise, where Druidical ruins are still found. In later times they chose the hill of Tullymongan, above the town of Cavan, and adopted the tribal name of Muintir Maolmordha, the people of Milesius,—Milesius, or Miles being a favorite name in the family. One of them, "Miles the Slasher," was probably the last of the regular chiefs. He was a brave and skillful soldier, and did good service under Owen Roe O'Neil, at the battle of Benburb. The family had its share of traditionary myths. In the County Cavan, near the old seat of their sovereignty, there still stands a tree on which one of their beloved chiefs was hanged in an ancient "rising." It is withered and leafless—tradition says it never bore foliage again after that day. The fortune of war overcame this race of gallant fighters. Many of them sought in foreign lands the career denied them at home, and the name, illustrious for centuries, gained new renown in France, Spain, Austria, and the wide domains of Spanish America. The O'Reillys were ever distinguished as soldiers, prelates, and scholars.
Four miles above the town of Drogheda, on the south bank of the beautiful Boyne, in the center of a vast basin of the most fertile and storied land in Ireland, stands Dowth Castle, where John Boyle O'Reilly was born, on June 28, 1844. Within three hundred yards of it is the Moat of Dowth, built in the pre-historic period. Four miles to the west rises the hill of Tara, while three miles to the north is the hill of Slane, where St. Patrick lit his fire on Beltane night. One mile further to the north are the majestic ruins of Mellifont Abbey; and two miles down the river an obelisk 150 feet high marks the spot where King James lost his crown and the liberties of Ireland. A mile to the east is the vast royal burying ground of Rossna-ree, the oldest and richest depository of Irish historical treasures.
Dowth Castle dates back to the days of the English Pale, and is said to have been built by Hugh De Lacy. Early in the present century. Viscount Netterville, an eccentric Irish nobleman, bequeathed the castle and some of his lands for the charitable object of educating and maintaining widows and orphans. The Netterville Institution, as it was called, embraced also a National School, built on its grounds, of which William David O'Reilly was the master for thirty-five years.
Here the young poet spent the first eleven years of his life. The Castle lay about half a mile from the river, the intervening ground being a rich, flat plain, known as the Boyne Meadow. The river here is not over one hundred feet wide, moderately rapid, and shallow. On the further side the land rises sheer from the water, and is covered with dark young fir trees. It was a favorite swimming ground for the boys of the neighborhood, among whom none was more daring or skillful than the handsome, rosy-cheeked, curly-haired, and dark-eyed boy, whose home was in Dowth Castle.
William David O'Reilly, the father, was a fine scholar, and an able educator. The boy was fortunate in having parents who were both remarkable for literary culture and talent. His mother, Eliza Boyle, was a near relative of the famous Colonel John Allen, who distinguished himself in the Rebellion of '98, and subsequently in the French Legion, winning renown at the head of his regiment in the battle of Astorga and in Napoleon's many later campaigns.
Mrs. 0'Reilly was a woman of rare intellectual gifts, combined with a generous, hospitable, kindly heart, which made her beloved by the beneficiaries of the Institution. The elder O'Reilly and his wife came to Dowth Castle from Dublin; they had five daughters and three sons, all of whom displayed, in a lesser degree, the poetic qualities which attained full growth in the case of John Boyle O'Reilly.John was the second son of the family. He inherited a good constitution, and from childhood was passionately devoted to out-door sports. He swam the Boyne, and roamed among the ruins and old underground passages of thd neighborhood, unconsciously absorbing the poetry and romance whose atmosphere Was all around. He was a brave, good-humored lad, not easily made angry, and quicker to resent an injury done a small playfellow than one offered himself. An unpublished sketch from his pen has this autobiographical bit: "When I was about nine years of age, some friend had gratified a craving which I had then (and have not lost yet) to own a dog, by presenting me with a brown, broad-backed, thick- legged, round-bodied, spaniel puppy, about a month old. Its possession
DOWTH CASTLE, COUNTY MEATH, IRELAND, BIRTH-PLACE OF JOHN BOYLE O'REILLY.
With such parents, and such surroundings, the lad assimilated knowledge, and imbibed the profounder learning that is not found in books, that indefinable something which makes all the difference between a scholar and a poet. His education could not be said to have been completed when he left school. They, only, have nothing more to learn who have nothing at all to teach in after life.
But he had good education in having learned how to handle the tools of knowledge, when, at about the age of eleven, he left home to enter the printing office of the Drogheda Argus, in the humble capacity of apprentice, and on the still more humble salary of two shillings and sixpence a week, which did not include board or lodging. The circumstances under which he was induced to begin the struggle of life at such a tender age were these: His brother, William, two and a half years his senior, had been bound as an apprentice in the Argus establishment. He was a delicate youth, and after six months' service was obliged by ill-health to give up his place. John, then a fine, manly little fellow, hearing his mother lament the loss of the premium, which amounted to fifty pounds, offered to take his brother's place, and the offer was ultimately accepted. His salary was increased at the rate of sixpence a week every year, the Argus in this respect not differing from other printing-offices in the country. A certain stint of work had to be done in return, and extra pay was allowed for all in excess thereof. Young O'Reilly was so apt a pupil that he very soon was in receipt of twice his nominal wages. His parents, of course, provided for whatever deficit might exist between his income and outlay. The work was not hard, but the hours were long,—six to nine o'clock before breakfast, ten to two before dinner, and three to seven or eight before supper. The boy was a prime favorite in the work-room, his handsome face, courteous manners, and kindly disposition making him the pet rather than the butt which the printer's "devil" often is. He was full of good-humor and fun that was sometimes mischievous, but never malicious. Probably his first poetic effort (if it may be so called) was the New Year's Day song written for the paper-carriers, and addressed to their patrons, with a view to obtaining gratuities. Here, as elsewhere, he was an omnivorous reader and an incessant dabbler in rhymes.
The death of the proprietor of the Argus discharged the indentures of young O'Reilly when he had served nearly four years of his time.
While enjoying a period of enforced idleness at home, the ship Caledonian, owned and commanded by his uncle, Capt. James Watkinson, of Preston, England, came to Drogheda, and loaded with a cargo of barley for Preston. Capt. Watkinson was an Englishman, who had married a sister of Mrs. O'Reilly. John accepted his invitation to make a voyage and visit to his aunt, Mrs. Watkinson, and accordingly set sail for Preston in August or September, 1859.
At the suggestion of his relatives, he secured a situation as apprentice in the office of the Guardian, then published in Cannon Street, Preston, ultimately graduating from the printer's case to the reporter's desk. He learned shorthand, and otherwise equipped himself for the business of a journalist.
Owing in part to its proximity to Ireland, and in part to the fact that it has always kept the old Faith, Preston is an English stronghold of Catholicity, with a large Irish population, sustaining its original name of "Priest Town."
He took part in the trade procession of the Guilds in September, 1862. This jubilee is one of the institutions of Preston which dates back to the reign of Henry the Second, and is celebrated every twenty years. During its progress, which lasts some ten days, the whole town enjoys a holiday with daily processions and nightly illuminations, attracting thousands of visitors from all parts of the country.
About a year after his arrival he became a member, and later a non-commissioned officer, of Company 2, Eleventh Lancashire Rifle Volunteers. He was an enthusiastic soldier, and an especial favorite in his company.
The three and a half years of his life in Preston were among the happiest he was ever to know. Writing to a friend in 1881, he said:
Do you remember the day we went to Ribchester, and then walked up along the river to Stonyhurst? Somehow that day stands out as one of the happiest and brightest in my life. I remember every incident as if it were yesterday. Though I lived only a few years in Preston, I love it and the friends I made there better than any I have since known. In worldly way I have prospered; and in literary repute I stand well in this country. I am busy from morning till night. But under all the changed appearances and surroundings the stream of my old friendships and pleasures flows steadily along.
During all the time of his residence at Preston he dwelt at the house of his aunt, at 81 Barton Terrace, Deepdale Road, leading a quiet,, studious life. During the winter months he got up amateur theatricals. At Christmas he prepared a splendid performance, with a stage erected in the back parlor, and an audience of little children, with one or two older friends from the Guardian office.
This happy, tranquil, care-free life, eminently congenial to the poet, did not satisfy the aspirations of the youth who was much more than a poet. Nevertheless, it was with many a heartache and some tears that he obeyed a call from his father to return home on the expiration of his term of apprenticeship, and seek employment on some Irish paper. There was something besides filial obedience impelling him when he left Preston, forever, about the end of March, 1863. He had become deeply imbued with the revolutionary principles, then so freely adopted by patriotic Irishmen in all parts of the world. He dreamed of making his country free—not merely independent of the British connection, but absolutely free—in short, a republic.
The Fenian movement was the crystallization of national discontent and aspiration for liberty, which had remained latent, but not dead, ever since the disastrous rising of 1798. O'Connell had failed to secure the repeal of the Union through agitation. The brilliant and daring spirits of "Young Ireland" had appealed to force, in 1848. Nothing came of it but defeat and humiliation. Irish orators have fervently characterized the condition of their countrymen as one of slavery. The phrase is unjust and misleading. The slave-master has a personal, selfish interest in the welfare of his bondman. The death of a slave means pecuniary loss to his owner; the escape of one is something to be prevented at any cost. It is business policy to keep the unpaid worker well and strong. Unfortunately for the wretched people of Ireland they were not slaves. When they died by thousands in the dark year of famine, when they fled the country by millions in the following years, their masters were unmoved by the one calamity; they rejoiced at the other. The vacant places were filled less expensively than by purchase at the auction-block. The sharp goad of hunger sent its victims to the human mart more surely than the slave-driver's whip. And political economy, which knows no sentiment, had decided that cattle were more profitable dwellers on the soil than men and women.
Ireland was "pacified." There was less discontent in 1860 than there had been twenty years before; because there were fewer men and women, by three millions, to be discontented. Order reigned in Ireland, as it had reigned in Warsaw. And so the country was desperately ripe for, insurrection.
The Fenians had planned a far-reaching scheme of revolution. Popular discontent with misgovernment could be relied upon as one agency; for the Irishman is ever a rebel against tyranny. Centuries of bitter experience have not broken his spirit, nor checked his aspirations.
The American Civil War was another element. The leaders counted on sympathy and aid from the people of the North, sorely grieved by the conduct of England in abetting the South. They counted on the more active support of thousands of Irish-American soldiers who owed a double debt of vengeance to the oppressors of their native land and the enemy of their adopted country.
But their shrewdest expectation was based on the disaffection which they hoped, and not in vain, to be able to sow in the ranks of the British army itself. More than thirty-one per cent, of the rank and file of that army, in 1860, were Irishmen.
The proportion of potential rebels was morally increased when John Boyle O'Reilly went over to Ireland, in May, 1863, to enlist as a trooper in the Tenth Hussars. One does not weigh dangerous consequences against generous impulses, at nineteen years of age. No more does he inquire with minute casuistry into the exact moral values of the deed. In entering the military service of the British Government, with the object of overthrowing the monarchy, he was guilty of treason, in the eye of the law.
But the penalty of treason, in any form, was death. There is no higher penalty; if there were it would have been decreed for such offenses. Whether he plotted against the Crown within the ranks of the army, or defied its power in open futile insurrection, the rebel's life was equally forfeit. The government puts no premium upon open hostility; it sets no special ban upon secret conspiracy. George Washington would have been hanged as ruthlessly as Robert Emmet had his scheme of treason failed.
As the event proved, the boldness of the conspirators was their salvation. The government, terrified at the extent to which disloyalty had pervaded the ranks, dared not be very severe in administering punishment. Rebellious Sepoys might be blown from the cannon's mouth, but there were too many Irishmen in the army to make such a measure wise in dealing with Fenians.
Young O'Reilly was not the man to weigh all these scruples or chances. Like Nathan Hale and Major André, he risked his life, but not his honor, when he entered the enemy's lines. He would have accepted their fate without a murmur, as the fortune of war, but when he joined the Tenth Hussars for the express purpose of recruiting the ranks of republicanism, he was animated by no motive more complex than that described by himself in after years: "They said to us: 'Come on, boys, it is for Ireland,'—and we came."
Never did dark conspirator bear lighter heart than did this brilliant boy when he donned the handsome uniform of the Tenth. Valentine Baker was its colonel, then a brave, dashing, petted soldier; later a just victim of British propriety, and, later yet, the denationalized servant of the unspeakable Turk. "O'Reilly was a good soldier," testified Baker at the trial of the rebellious Hussar. More than once he had received petty promotion, which he always took care to have canceled by some breach of discipline, for he did not wish to owe over-much to the service.
The life of the trooper had many charms for him. He loved its splendid glamour, being a soldier by inheritance and instinct. He rejoiced in martial pastimes, and he was young and comely enough to take a pleasure in the gay trappings of a cavalryman. It delighted him, as he afterward confessed, to go out of his way, when sent on a message of duty, in order to pass a certain great plate-glass window, in which he could behold the dazzling proportions of himself and his steed. But the boyish pride had in it nothing to spoil his manliness. He coveted, and easily won, the truer happiness of knowing that he was beloved by his fellows. The qualities which had made him the favorite of the printing-office and the Volunteer barracks, which were destined to win the hearts of thousands in every rank of life, in a strange land, gave him a high place in the hearts of the rough troopers of the Tenth. By his personal magnetism, as much as by the force of his eloquence, he turned many a stout fellow from allegiance to the Queen, to the more dangerous path of devotion to country.
Before coming to the abrupt close of his service as a trooper in the "Prince of Wales' Own," it is worth while to dwell for a moment on the life which he loved so well. Among his unpublished papers I find some interesting fragmentary sketches of military life, which show what his possibilities were had he possessed the leisure or inclination to amplify them into pictures.
One is a delightful view of a passing regiment entitled:
THE PICKET OF DRAGOONS.
On a bright March morning, about ten o'clock, the loungers on the quay along the river Liffey, that flows peacefully through the center of Dublin, turned their indolent backs to the low wall and gazed at the mounted picket of dragoons on its way to the "Castle." The soldiers were going to relieve the picket from another cavalry regiment that had been on guard since the day before. The picket was composed of a sergeant, a corporal, and twelve troopers. The sun glittered on their burnished bits, stirrups, and swords, and on the silk-like coats of their well-groomed horses. They rode leisurely, in perfect order.
The sergeant, old, white-mustached, red-nosed, and very corpulent, rode in front, his right hand planted jauntily on his thigh, and his wicked eye raking the sidewalk for female admiration, and glancing into the large shop windows, where he caught a passing reflection of his graceful self.
"Old Jock is in no hurry this morning," said one of the drummers, with a low laugh, to the comrade next him. "Hurry! old peacock!" grumbled the other; "he would like to parade here all day. Just look! "A lady who had been approaching on the almost deserted sidewalk had stopped a little ahead, with the evident intention of taking a good look at the soldiers. Oh! the subtle influence of the sex. Every man in the picket sat a little straighter, and even the horses seemed to curve their necks until their lips kissed the brazen boss of the breastplate.It was a sweet moment for the sergeant. He leaned forward, taking the reins in his right hand a moment to pat the horse's neck with his left white-gauntleted hand, which was next the sidewalk. Then he sat easily back, right hand on thigh again, and blandly turned to beam on the admiring divinity. Rare moment! Only he who has worn war-paint knows the meaning of it. The foam-fleck on the bit, the shining color of the chain on the horse's neck, the reminding touch of the hilt against the thigh,—all these common, daily things are felt anew, with a fresh significance known to the recruit, when they are mirrored in the admiring, ignorant eyes of womanhood.
The Tenth Hussars were picked men, at least physically. Morally and mentally they were also above the average, which was not high, of the army. A youth like O'Reilly, full of generous impulses and lofty aspirations, would have been strangely out of place among the men whom the latest novelist has given to the world as representative British soldiers. But the troopers of the Tenth were far above such ruthless swashbucklers. Types of the latter were to be met with at the great military musters of Aldershot and the Curragh. "Are Mulvaney and Learoyd and Ortheris fair representatives of the British private?" was a question put to the ex-private of Troop D, of the Tenth Hussars, shortly after the appearance on the literary stage of these Anglo-Indian musketeers. "They are not average soldiers," he replied, "but they are not caricatures. I have seen men fully as depraved as Mr. Kipling's hero, who boasted of having 'put his foot through every one of the Ten Commandments between "reveillé" and "lightsout."' I met one at a review on the Curragh, who told me, without the slightest apparent thought of the atrocity of the deed, how he and his comrades had once roasted a Hindoo gentleman to death, out of pure, wanton savagery. He did not consider it a crime to be ashamed of, nor a feat to boast of. It was simply an incident in his campaign experience."
It would be a gross libel to say that the British army is mainly, or even largely, made up of such truculent ruffians as these, or that even the milder villainies chronicled by Kipling are fairly characteristic of them. It is nevertheless true that few men of good character enter the ranks, unless impelled by stern necessity, or by such a higher motive as that which sent O'Reilly and scores of other incipient rebels thither. Thirty years ago, the British private soldier was looked upon as a moral outcast by even the humblest of honest folk in civil life. Characteristically enough, the same people, as well as their "betters," had nothing but envious admiration for the commissioned officer, whose morals were not a whit choicer than those of the enlisted man. But that inconsistency of human nature is as old as the noble trade of war itself.
There were good men as well as good soldiers, thousands of them, in the rank and tile. It was always the good men and good soldiers among the Irishmen who were most easily converted to the doctrines of Fenianism. This is one of the commonest fruits of misgovernment.
O'Reilly was a model soldier, quick to learn and punctual to obey the rules of military discipline. He was the life of the barracks, infecting his comrades with something of his own gay and cheery nature. He was foremost in every amusement, lightening the dullness of life in quarters with concerts and dramatic performances, sometimes of his own composition, a strong Nationalist tone pervading all his work. Treasonable songs and ballads were chanted in the quarters of troop D, and spread among the other companies. With boyish recklessness he embroidered rebel devices on the under side of his saddle-cloth, and in the lining of his military overcoat.
Yet when the Government, alarmed at the spread of disaffection, sent its secret agents to investigate, the conspirators hoodwinked and baffled all the minor spies, and laughed in their sleeves at the dullness of Scotland Yard. Treason continued to flourish, and, but for counter-treason, might have flourished indefinitely. Talbot, the arch-informer, was detailed to work up the case. He was a useful agent of Government, a smooth, insidious scoundrel, who ingratiated himself into the confidence of the most wary, professing the warmest patriotic sentiments, and carrying his deception even to the extent of assuming to be a devout Catholic. As such he went to Confession and Communion with pious punctuality.
This utterly depraved scoundrel deserves more than passing mention. His other deserts he received when, in open day, on a crowded Dublin street, he was shot dead by an illegal agent of righteous retribution. In the year 1864, under the assumed name of Kelly, and the disguise of a zealous Catholic and patriot, he presented himself to the Fenian conspirators at Clonmel, Tipperary, and showed so much enthusiasm in the cause that he was speedily appointed an officer and authorized to organize a "circle."
His zeal was so great that he made many converts among young men who, but for his exhortations, would never have dreamed of entering upon such a dangerous adventure. He personally administered the Fenian oath to a large number of soldiers.
When the collapse came, the chief witness for the Government was the oily "Mr. Kelly," water-bailiff of Clonmel, alias Head Constable Talbot. This Government agent was the lay figure from which Boucicault drew one of his greatest studies, Harvey Duff, the informer in "The Shaughraun."
Ten years after Talbot's betrayal of the Fenians, and two years after the informer had gone to his account, one of his victims wrote as follows in his paper, the Boston Pilot:
"There is underlying the character of 'The Shaughraun,' one rigid and terrible line—a line typical and national—hatred of an informer. Mr. Boucicault, an Irishman himself, must have carefully studied the devilish character of Talbot before he drew that of Harvey Duff. Here, too, we find a man—coward at heart, but confident and cunning—who wins the trust of the peasantry, and then swears their lives away. Villainy added to villainy fills the traitor’s cup at last, and the awful hour comes when the informer cowers like a cur at the feet of the Shaughraun, and gasps in terror at the cries of the country people coming down the hillside in pursuit. Here stands out the rigid line that subtends the character of laughter-loving, but now terrible Conn. The drollery dies out of his face and the light freezes in his eye. Seizing the kneeling wretch by the throat, he laughs in his agonized face, as pitiless as Fate.
"'Listen to them,' he cries, pointing to the hillside; 'look at them! They are coming for you! Do you see that old man with the spade? That's Andy Donovan, whose son you sent to prison. And that old woman with the hatchet? That's Bridget Madigan, whose boys you sent across the sea. Pity! you dog! I'll have pity on you, as you had pity on them.'"
On the one side was pitted the might, and money, and influence of a great Empire; on the other, the reckless courage and uncalculating patriotism of the few and friendless, but generous-hearted dreamers like Boyle O'Reilly.
John Devoy, the indefatigable agent of the revolutionary party, tells how he first met the young Hussar who was to play such a prominent part in the after history of his country:
"I met him first in October, 1865, and the circumstances were characteristic of that troubled period of Irish history. The Tenth was quartered at Island Bridge Barracks, in the western outskirts of Dublin. There was a warrant for my arrest as a Fenian at the time, and I could not go home or attend to business. I had some acquaintance with the army, through living near the Curragh camp, and, when all the 'organizers' for the army had been arrested or forced to remain ' on their keeping,' James Stephens, the chief executive of the Irish republic that was to be, appointed me 'chief organizer' for the British army. The position involved some risks, but I undertook it, and in a few months laid up sufficient evidence to procure myself a sentence of fifteen years' penal servitude.
"I succeeded very well with all the regiments of the Dublin garrison except the Tenth Hussars, and I wanted to do the best I could with it, on account of the location of the barracks. The men were mainly English, but there were about a hundred Irishmen among them. Those I had met were mostly worthless, and I could make no headway. At last a young veterinary surgeon from Drogheda, named Harry Byrne, now dead—all the men of that period are dying off—was introduced to me by Colonel Kelly, the man afterward rescued in Manchester. He told me there was a young fellow of his acquaintance in the Tenth who would Just fill the bill. In half an hour we were on our way to Island Bridge on an outside car. We dismissed it some distance away and went into the barracks. The regiment had been stationed in Drogheda, and Byrne knew many of the officers and sergeants through his profession. In the barrack square we met a bluff, hearty sergeant major, an Englishman of the best type, whom Byrne knew. He told us O'Reilly was on picket at the royal barracks. There were heavy pickets of cavalry and infantry kept in readiness for emergencies at certain points in Dublin during these exciting times. We went into the canteen and had a drink and a chat with the old veteran, and he praised O'Reilly to the skies. He pronounced him the best young soldier in the regiment, and evidently thought there was a great future before him. 'I shouldn't wonder,' said he, 'if in five or six years that young fellow'd be a troop sawjent majah.'
"We went to the royal barracks, not far away, and, meeting some Fenian troopers of the Fifth Dragoon Guards, were soon piloted to where the picket of the Tenth was stationed. O'Reilly was in the stable tightening his saddle girths and getting ready to mount and start off to the viceregal lodge with" a dispatch for the lord lieutenant from Sir Hugh Rose, the commander of the forces; in Ireland. Byrne had just time to introduce us, and O'Reilly and I to make an appointment for the next evening, when he brought out his horse, sprang into the saddle, and was off. O' Reilly was then a handsome, lithely built young fellow of twenty, with the down of a future black mustache on his lip. He had a pair of beautiful dark eyes, that changed in expression with his varying emotions. He wore the full-dress dark blue hussar uniform, with its mass of braiding across the breast, and the busby, with its tossing plume, was set jauntily on the head and held by a linked brass strap, catching under the lower lip.
"From that time till the following February, when we were both arrested within a few days of each other, I saw him almost every day. When on guard or picket duty he never failed to communicate to me, through William Curry, a furloughed corporal of the Eighty-seventh Foot,— the famous 'Faugh a Ballaghs,'—who could go in and out of the barracks, every change worth knowing in the location and strength of the guards and pickets. He brought in some eighty men to be sworn in, 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 the barracks at a given signal. The signal never came, and all his and other men's risks and sacrifices were thrown away through incompetent and nerveless leadership."
It was time for the Government to exert itself, as fifteen thousand British soldiers had been enrolled in the ranks of the revolutionists. On the 15th of September, 1865, the blow fell. The Irish People newspaper, which had been for two years the organ of the physical force party, was seized by the police, and its editors, Thomas Clark Luby, John O'Leary, and Jeremiah O' Donovan Rossa, were put under arrest. This action of the Government was wholly unexpected on the part of the conspirators, who had, very unwisely, foreborne to destroy hundreds of letters of an incriminating nature from fellow-conspirators in all parts of the country. The authorities, by one stroke, were thus given the key to the whole revolutionary scheme. In the following November, Charles Joseph Kickham, another editor of The Irish People, was arrested, together with James Stephens, the great "Head Center" of the Fenian movement. Stephens escaped from Richmond prison before he could be brought to trial. The man through whose skill and daring he was rescued from the very lion's jaws was John Breslin, of whom we shall hear again in a still more audacious, successful exploit. By a curious coincidence, John Boyle O' Reilly was one of the soldiers detailed to guard the court room on the occasion of O'Donovan Rossa's trial. The famous "dynamiter" recognized his former guard when they met, years afterward, in New York.
O'Reilly was looking out of the barrack windows at Island Bridge, in the city of Dublin, on the afternoon of February 12, 1866, when he saw one of his fellow-conspirators arrested and led to the guard-house. "My turn will come next," he said quietly. His prediction was verified; he was arrested within forty-eight hours. As he traversed the barrack-yard, in charge of a detective, his colonel met him, and shaking his fist in the prisoner's face, exclaimed, "Damn you, O'Reilly! you have ruined the finest regiment in the service." There was perhaps as much of regret as of anger in the imprecation; for Valentine Baker liked the bright and handsome young Hussar, whom he had once saved from an ignominious punishment, and the feeling was reciprocated. Years afterwards, when their situations were reversed, and O'Reilly, prosperous and honored, read of the shame that had come upon his old commander, he was moved by genuine sorrow and sympathy for the fallen soldier.
While he lay in Arbor Hill military prison, closely guarded, as was each of the accused, pressure was brought to bear upon him to inform against his comrades. He was assured that others had secured immunity for themselves by making a clean breast of their connection with the conspiracy. Certain weak men to whom a similar assurance had been given had, indeed, been duped into becoming informers. Isolation, silence, the grim uncertainty that hung over all, and especially the seed of suspicion so carefully sown, that he who held out longest would suffer the worst, were arguments strong enough to weaken many a man who would not have wavered if ordered to charge a battery. The warden who had immediate charge of O'Reilly was an old soldier and an Englishman. As a loyal subject he hated treason; but, as a soldier, he bore no love for a traitor to his fellows. As in duty bound he officially countenanced the efforts of the authorities to secure evidence by any and all means. One day, just before that fixed for the trial, another official labored for the last time long and earnestly to extort a confession from O'Reilly, assuring him that others had owned up and that it would be suicidal folly in him to remain silent when he could secure pardon by telling all he knew. The warden, who was present, threw in an occasional perfunctory remark to the same effect. As the prisoner continued obdurate, the official took his leave, with a parting warning of the dread consequences. The warden accompanied him to the door, adding his word of advice: "Yes, you'd better do as he says, O'Reilly. It will be better for you to save your own neck, my boy."
Then closing the door on the visitor and wheeling sharply round, "And, damme! I'd like to choke you with my own hands if you do!"
Another interesting story of this period attaches to one of the very few of his early poems which he judged worthy of preservation in his collected work—"The Old School Clock." The manuscripts of that and some other verses were discovered hidden in the ventilator of the cell occupied by a fellow-prisoner, after his trial and deportation to England. It fell into the hands of Mr. Vere Foster, the celebrated philanthropist, who sent copies to the young poet's family, and took such an especial liking to "The Old School Clock," that he printed it, with a picture of the old and the new clocks, as described in the poem, on the back of the National School copy-books, which were manufactured by him. The original clock was one which hung on the wall of the Netterville schoolroom. On revisiting home, while serving in the Tenth Hussars, O'Reilly missed the old clock, its place being usurped, as he tells in the poem, by "a new-fashioned. Yankee" intruder.
The fellow-prisoner was Captain James Murphy, a veteran of the American Civil War, who had been arrested, while traveling in Ireland, on the false charge of being a deserter from the British army. When Captain Murphy was transferred from Arbor Hill, his person and clothing were searched rigorously, but nothing contraband was found, as he had hidden the poems, written in pencil, and the following letter from their author, in the ventilator of his cell:
Mr. Foster was compelled to withdraw the poem from the copy-books, as the National School Board objected to sanctioning the production, however innocent, of a Fenian. Some years afterwards Mr. Foster visited America, and on his return told the following interesting sequel to the incident:
"On my arrival at Boston, I called on the proprietor of the Pilot. He said: 'To-morrow morning I shall send a young man from this office to call on you. He will question you as to the object of your present visit to America, and I will print a paragraph which may be the means of bringing some of your old friends about you.'
"Next morning a handsome young man of good address called on me at my hotel, and after some conversation, I asked him his name.
"'John Boyle O'Reilly,' said he.
"'Are you the author of a little poem called "The Old School Clock"?'
"'I am,' he replied.
"He didn't know that the poem had been found, and a copy of it given, as he had desired, to his parents, whom I had hunted up in Dublin, and at length found lodging in the same street as myself, or that the poem had been published.
"I had but one copy with me, which he was greatly delighted to possess. He entertained me at dinner, and showed me all over the city."