Life of John Boyle O'Reilly/Chapter 10
Death of John O'Mahony—O'Reilly's Tribute to the Head-Center-Prison Sufferings of Corporal Chambers—He is Set Free at Last—O'Reilly on Denis Kearney—"Moondyne," and its Critics—"Number 406."
THE Catalpa rescue was as gallant and chivalrous a deed as ever loyal knights had dared for suffering comrades. There was not a taint of sordid or selfish purpose in it, from beginning to end. Any nation might be proud of the sons who had so boldly conceived and so shrewdly carried it to success; but the world has no laurels for the heroes of a defeated cause. Fenianism in Ireland had been a tragedy: in America it was a wretched farce. And the world looking at the stricken gladiator, turned its thumbs downward.
Among the men whom disaster had crushed and saddened was John O'Mahony, the once famous Head-Center. He came of revolutionary stock, his ancestors having been concerned in every rising against the English for generations. His father and uncle were rebels in '98; he himself had to fly the country on the failure of the insurrection of '48. He organized the Fenian Brotherhood in 1860. Although hundreds of thousands of dollars had passed through his hands, he died absolutely poor, on the 7th of February, 1877. When the news of his mortal illness in New York became known, O'Reilly paid this just tribute to the dying enthusiast, who had suffered that bitterest penalty of failure, unjust reproach and undeserved distrust.
John O'Mahony was the first "Head-Center" of the Fenian movement in America, and he is the Head-Center still in its decadence. He watched beside its cradle; he rose with it in its sudden strength; he was its head when it assumed the extraordinary attitude of a foreign national government with headquarters in New York; its copious stream of gold passed through his hands; the scores of thousands of its builders, looking to their Center, beheld and believed in the rapt face, the solemn figure, and the streaming hair of their chosen leader. He was not merely the guide or fabricator of Fenianism. He, more than any man alive or dead, was the spirit and subtending principle of the movement. Its single-heartedness and devotion were his, no matter whose its narrowness and shortcoming. Stephens was the "Chief Organizer," but John O'Mahony was the "Head-Center." His whole life and aspirations were bound up in one word—Fenianism. It was he who christened the movement with this title, which was objectionable to most of its members. Only of late years, when they saw that the world knew them only by this name, did they accept the ancient word imposed on them by their leader.
The fate of too many Irish leaders followed O'Mahony. Dissensions came, and doubts, and divisions; the walls crumbled, the floors shook, and the antique figure descended in sorrow from its place in the Moffat mansion. The aim of the movement was broken; other minds than O'Mahony's entered in and were averse to the old style. As Young Ireland departed from O'Connell and followed the brilliant youths of the Sword, so Fenianism swerved from O'Mahony and half its supporters faced toward Canada. Col. William R. Roberts, a natural leader of men, sanguine, intellectual, eloquent, replaced O'Mahony in their hearts. Lower and lower went his Fenianism, till the only men who clung to it in a practical way were a few severe or simple natures, those who stand by a solitary idea for a lifetime, whose grasp and hope are coeval with their existence. With these was John O'Mahony. The gilded palaces were gone; and he was the same antique Fenian still. Years went by, and the name of the man was rarely mentioned; and when spoken, even in assemblies of Irishmen, too often the taint of suspicion was said or insinuated, and left uncontradicted. The money sent to him in the heyday of Fenianism was remembered, and the old charge was made—he had duped the people. If any man who made this charge had met John O'Mahony in New York for the past seven years, he would have begged the old man's pardon. A tall, gaunt figure—the mere framework of a mighty man; a large, lusterless face, with deep-sunken, introverted eyes; faded, lightish hair, worn long to the shoulders; an overcoat always buttoned, as if to hide the ravages of wear and tear on the inner garments; something of this, and something too of gentleness and knightlihood, not easily described, were in the awkward and slow-moving figure, with melancholy and abstracted gaze, so well known to the Irishmen of New York as John O'Mahony, the Head-Center.
Leaving aside the faults and failures of Fenianism for the sake of its honest and sacrificial patriotism, and for the sake of poor John O'Mahony, whose whole life was a sacrifice, we say that this man's existence and work, though both were darkened by disappointment, were on the whole of good service to Ireland. Unquestionably the movement of 1865-66 kindled the dead wood of Irish nationality. There was sore need of a torch and a hand to fire the stubble. There was actual danger of national death in Ireland. The new generation had been brought up under a system of apparent lenity, and educated in "national schools," cunningly designed to make Irish children West Britons. It may be that no patriotic light from above, no open political teaching could avert the danger. Be that as it may, the light came from below—it was carried in secret through the country, from town to town, by James Stephens. The peasant and mechanic lit their lamps at the sacrificial flame—and carried it years after, in loving care, though it scorched them to the bone, in English dungeons. He organized Fenianism on this continent; and all of him that was in it was pure and devoted and good.The life of a good and pure man—a life held in his hand and daily offered up with pagan simplicity for one unselfish object—for his country—can never do that country aught but good. We do not think he was a great man: we never thought him a wise man; but that he was a faithful and unflinching son and servant and slave to Ireland, no one who knew him will deny above his grave. God send more men as lovable and unselfish as he! A gentleman born and bred, he chose to live in poverty, putting all things aside that might interfere with his dream of a free Ireland. He never stained his white hand with one unworthy coin from the treasury of Fenianism.
O'Mahony was the incarnation of his cause, sincere, honest, unselfish, and uncalculating—not wise as the world judges, but wiser, perhaps, than he or the world knew, in cherishing a dream:
For a dreamer lives forever.
But a toiler dies in a day.
The body of the dead chieftain was borne to Ireland and buried in Dublin, being followed to the grave by thousands of his mourning countrymen.
There were other Fenians less fortunate than the dead O'Mahony, in that their graves held living men. Sergeant McCarthy and Corporal Chambers, O'Reilly's fellow prisoners in Pentonville, Chatham, Portsmouth, and Dartmoor, still wore the felon's garb and chains. O'Connor Power moved in the House of Commons, on June 5, for an inquiry into the treatment of the political prisoners, and presented a communication from Michael Davitt, who had then been in prison for seven years, detailing some of the hardships which himself and his comrades had endured. McCarthy was then within a year of the release which was to come to him only through the clemency of death. Davitt gave a minute account, as follows, of the indignities and cruelties heaped upon poor Chambers:
In December of this year O'Reilly received a "letter" from Chambers, i.e., a printed document in which the prisoner had been allowed to write exactly four words, or five, if we include the word "friend."
The following is the letter, with the prisoner's part of the composition italicized:
Woking Prison, England, November 29, 1877.
Dear Friend. I was transferred from Dartmoor on the 26th inst., and am now in this prison; I am in worse health, and if I do not forfeit the privilege I shall be allowed to write a longer letter afterward, and then receive one from you in reply.
This is the answering message of cheer sent in the happy Christmas time, and gratefully preserved by the receiver as long as he lived. When both sender and receiver had passed away, a loyal comrade, Mr. James Wrenn, to whom Chambers had bequeathed it, brought me the paper. It was well worn with many readings, for this terrible "rebel," who had been so severely punished, was the simplest and kindliest of men, and loved O'Reilly with the trustful love of a dog or a child:
Boston, U. S. A., December 22, 1877.
John Boyle O'Reilly
Corporal Thomas Chambers, Sixty-First Foot; in prison.
My Dear Old Friend: I cannot go to my home to-night without writing to you and actually saying the words, "May you have a happy Christmas, dear boy," as happy as you may have in your sad surroundings.
Your last letter was more a grief to me than a pleasure. I see your familiar hand in only four hearty words. I am glad, however, that the prison authorities allowed you to have my letter. I feared that it would go the unknown road of many previous ones.
Eleven years ago—and what a long lifetime it seems—we were both young and enthusiastic boys, and I am impressed to-day, somehow, with the vast changes worked on men by time; you in your prison, and I in the world, have both equally changed. When ten more years have passed we shall both look back with pleasure—yes, as sure as you live, old friend—at the dark shadow. When your time comes, as it surely will before long, the revulsion of feeling will in itself be so deep a joy that whole years of suffering will be swallowed up.
I grieve to hear of your declining health. Dear Tom, a stout heart keeps a man healthy. Bear up; remember you have a hearty welcome in the home of one friend, I might say of very many,— and now, at the eleventh hour, do not despond nor sink. You must come to us, rugged and strong; come a boy, to begin the world anew, and to work out your manly way in the New World.
I know that if I were to write news it would break the prison rules and nullify my letter, and I must confine myself to mere words, but believe me, there is a heart behind every sentence.
I do not believe you will be long a prisoner, but, long or short, husband your health for the time of delivery. When you write me, I trust in God you will tell me you are gaining strength. I wish I might write you a newspaper full.
J. B. O'Reilly.
This letter was indorsed:
To the Governor of Woking Prison:
Sir: I respectfully beg that this letter be handed to the person to whom it is addressed. His health may be affected by despondency which a friendly message may arrest or dispel. I have tried to avoid breaking your rules or discipline.
On the 27th of August, 1877, Mr. John O'Kane, a scholarly gentleman who had been assistant editor of the Pilot for some years, died of pneumonia, at the age of forty years. He left one son, Daniel P. O'Kane, whom Mr. O'Reilly took into the office and made his confidential clerk. "Dan"—it seems impossible to speak of him save by the familiar name by which he was known and loved—was an amiable, kindly youth, warmly devoted to his chief and dearly loved in return. The fatal seeds of consumption were in his system, and developed such alarming symptoms in the year 1890 that he was forced to give up his work on the Pilot and go to the Boston City Hospital for treatment. His declining health was the cause of heartfelt grief to O'Reilly. While the latter was away on his lecturing tour on the Pacific Coast, he telegraphed to the writer from San Francisco for news of the sick lad. It was one of those little things which, somehow, find lodgment only in big hearts. Dan survived his chief but one week; the strong, lusty man died, after all, before his frail protégé.
In this year, 1877, O'Reilly was called upon to write an obituary notice of another great journalist, Samuel Bowles, founder and editor of the Springfield Republican. His eulogy of the dead editor may be fitly applied to himself, even as his warning against overwork is sadly prophetic of his own fate:
Writing in the last month of the year 1890, it is not hard to understand the pain and chagrin with which Irish patriots, thirteen years ago, confessed the utter failure of Isaac Butt's parliamentary efforts to secure Home Rule for his country. But the inefficient leader was supplanted and a new one chosen, and Ireland—God help her!—saw another dawn breaking in the east. Mr. Butt was hopelessly amiable:
"Whenever a motion trenching on Irish nationality was brought forward," wrote O'Reilly, "it was beaten with nothing short of contumely. Still not a severe word from Mr. Butt. As soon as one bill was squelched, he smilingly sat down to draw up another, and courteously awaited its extinction. It was plain that such a character was badly suited for his place; but the country waited and trusted that 'at the right moment' their chosen leader would rise up in virtuous indignation, and for the sake of Ireland's very manhood utter a statesman's reproof and protest.
"There is no such mettle in Isaac Butt, we are sorry to believe. He has been tried and found wanting. The country is disappointed and sick of him. He has been deposed and supplanted by a younger and bolder man The actual policy of the new leader it is not easy to foreshadow; but it will doubtless be a vigorous one. The young blood of Ireland will assuredly be with him, and the old blood that has not stagnated. The peace policy has been misunderstood by Irish leaders like Butt. To these it means peace at any price—peace in legislative action as well as in arms. They do not see that peace everywhere means decay. If Ireland does not fight in the field, she must fight all the harder in the British Parliament. She has never received anything from England for the humble asking. These young and strong, men, disgusted with the decent humility of Isaac Butt when his face was slapped and his country sneered at, have adopted a more virile course. They know the lesson of Irish history: The best prophet of the Future is the Past."
Never did Ireland need the comfort of a prophet of good more sorely than she does to-day.
On January 5, 1878, a special cable dispatch announced that three of the Irish political prisoners, viz., McCarthy, Chambers, and 0'Brien, who had been confined since 1866, were set at liberty. O'Reilly wrote for this occasion his poem "Released:"
Haggard and broken and seared with pain,
They seek the remembered friends and places;
Men shuddering turn, and gaze again
At the deep-drawn lines on their altered faces.
She offers a bribe—All, God above!
Behold the price of the desecration:
The hearts she has tortured for Irish love
She brings as a bribe to the Irish nation!
We know her—our Sister! Come on the storm!
God send it soon and sudden upon her:
The race she has scattered and sought to deform
Shall laugh as she drinks the black dishonor.
To his fellow-soldier and friend. Corporal Chambers, he sent this wise and kindly letter of welcome to freedom:
Boston, U. S. A., February 6, 1878.
I shall not weary you with many words just now. Welcome, my dear, dear old fellow, welcome a thousand times. You mention a long letter you wrote me in November; I never received it, or any other real letter from you during the eight years that I have written to you. When you have time to sit down and write me at length, do so.
McCarthy's death was a great shock to me; God rest the poor murdered old fellow.
I sent you a book the other day; I shall publish another in a month or two and shall send that also. Tell me precisely how you are situated and what you propose doing.
I beg of you to avoid the kindly -meant demonstrations in your honor, either at home or here, should you come here. It is frothy excitement; there is nothing of it left after a few weeks. It has a good moral effect, perhaps; but the same effect can be better secured in another way. You will have to look around now for the means of earning a good livelihood. Pardon my prosaic suggestions, Tom, but I have seen so many men lionized that I have learned to fear the effect on them and to regret it on the behalf of those who make the noise.Should you decide to come to America, come straight to me, and I will put a stouter chain on you than ever you saw in Dartmoor.
O'Reilly had written a noble poem for the O'Connell Centenary in the year 1875. The hundredth birthday of another, and even more beloved, because more unfortunate, Irish patriot, Robert Emmet, was celebrated on March 4, 1878. The exercises at Tremont Temple, Boston, consisted of an oration by Mr. Anthony A. Griffin, of New York, and a poem, "The Patriot's Grave," by John Boyle O'Reilly, who succeeded in drawing an original thought from the touching, but well-quoted, demand of Emmet, "Let no man write my epitaph."
Tear down the crape from the column! Let the shaft stand white and fair!
Be silent the wailing music—there is no death in the air!
We come not in plaint or sorrow—no tears may dim our sight:
We dare not weep o'er the epitaph we have not dared to write.
He teaches the secret of manhood—the watchword of those who aspire—
That men must follow freedom though it lead through blood and fire;
That sacrifice is the bitter draught which freemen still must quaff—
That every patriotic life is the patriot's epitaph.
The lesson of Emmet's life, as read by O'Reilly, who much resembled him, was this:
In the summer of this year, the laboring people of America were stirred by a crusade against capital, led by an Irish-American, Dennis Kearney of San Francisco, a noisy agitator, who had more than a kernel of right to his bushel of chaff, but his strength lay in denunciation, his weakness in lack of constructive ability. When he came to Boston to harangue the people, some short-sighted conservatives wished to have him silenced. Wiser counsels prevailed. He was allowed full freedom of speech and he talked himself out. O'Reilly, who refused no man a hearing, demanded only a coherent formulation of his principles by Kearney. In a cogent editorial of August 17, he wrote:
The workingmen of this country need wise leaders. There are half a score of burning questions for their consideration and action. Has Dennis Kearney any message to deliver on any of these subjects? The workingmen are all divided on their issues. In another column we give sixty remedies proposed by workingmen to the Hewitt Committee, ranging all the way from the abolition of labor and property to the abolition of money and government. On which of these, or on what else are the workingmen to agree?
Let us say to Dennis Kearney that he had, and has still, if he have brain and principle, a rare and splendid opportunity. There is no grander fame than that of a trusted leader of workmen. This is the country for the production of such leaders. Labor is free, and respected, and enfranchised. Turn to the study, man, before it is too late. Seize the deep wishes and hopes; take hold of the strong lines; be wise, and powerful, and gentle. Be faithful, and able to lead the masses to better laws and greater happiness. Be Rienzi, if you can; be Masaniello, if you fail; but for the honor of toil, be even a decent Wat Tyler or Jack Cade. Remember, Kearney, it is no enemy who speaks. Every word we say here will reach the eyes or ears of a million workingmen.
In their name, for their interests, we condemn your intemperate course. You commit a crime when your furious and blind utterances hold up the cause of Labor to derision.
On the 30th of November, 1878, O'Reilly began a serial story in the Pilot, entitled "Moondyne Joe," the latter part of the name being dropped after the issue of the following February 1. It was published in book form, under its new title, by Roberts Bros., in 1880, and has reached twelve editions. The book, "Dedicated to all who are in prison," since so widely read and generally admired, evoked on its appearance some remarkably harsh criticisms from ultra Catholics, who objected to what they called its pagan spirit. It was not enough that the author had imbued his hero with the principles of Catholic Christianity, his critics were dissatisfied because the artist had failed to label his wo?k in large letters. They were unquestionably sincere, and unquestionably narrow in their judgment. No better answer to such strictures could be given than this of the author himself, replying to the question:
IS "MOONDYNE" A BAD BOOK?
Mr. J. A. McMaster, editor of the New York Freeman's Journal, says that when he had read "Moondyne" he threw it down, saying to one that admired the author, and had been charmed with the story: "That is a bad book!" "Why? "cried the guileless one, "was it wrong for me to have read it?" "Oh, not a bit! It is a weird romance of impossible characters, and set off with keen and quick perception of nature. It is faultless in regard to those sickly, twaddling love passages that offend in plenty of stories passed off as Catholic. The poison in this book finds nothing in you to take hold of, because you do not understand it. It is worse than pagan. Under the glamour borrowed from the results of Christian civilization, it breathes out principles that are not un-Christian only, but anti-Christian!"
This is a grave charge for one Catholic editor to make against another; but it loses in effect when we remember that he who makes it is given to such startling accusations, and has from time to time hurled condemnation on bishops, priests, and laymen, indiscriminately, and has himself received numerous serious reproofs for his unruly and aggressive disposition. We admire and respect Mr. McMaster's faith and intention; but we have very little regard for his perception, judgment, and temper. He speaks to the author of "Moondyne" as to a friend, and he pays him the respect of saying that he handles him roughly because he knows he can bear it. But the proof of friendship is the deed, not the word. Mr. McMaster refers to the serpent in Eden (which, by the way, he boldly says was not a serpent, "as vulgar stories tell"), saying:
"He deluded our poor dear old foolish grandmother Eve—and terribly she did penance for it. But he deluded her,—and his cry was precisely that of Boyle O'Reilly's 'Moondyne,' 'Away with law! Liberty! Liberty of the colt of the wild ass!' 'Mankind! yes mankind is older than the Birth of Jesus Christ! If Jesus Christ will become a republican we will adopt him! If not —'"
One could think, on reading these shocking words, that they were from Boyle O'Reilly’s book; that this was actually the cry of "Moondyne," and the dreadful spirit of the work. It is not so; God forbid! Those words are wholly McMaster's, evolved from the phantasy of an excited brain and a hatred of republicanism, for he believes firmly that republicanism is anti-Christian and damnable. Here are Moondyne's words (page 119, first edition), which Mr. McMaster has so horribly misrepresented;
"Society could have a better existence with better laws. At present the laws of civilization, especially of England, are based on and framed by Property Human laws should be founded on God's law and human right, and not on the narrow interests of land and gold."
These are widely different words from those used by McMaster, and have a wholly different meaning. On what can good law be ultimately founded, if not on "God's law and human right?"
Hasty and harsh and unjust judgment is not proof of good will; yet we are willing to believe that Mr. McMaster means every friendly word he has written. That "Moondyne" should be mistaken for a pagan does not seem to be possible; but from the testimony of friendly critics we are willing to conclude that his silence on the matter of creed may be misconstrued. It was not the author's intention that "Moondyne" should be so mistaken: it was directly opposite to his intention. To demand of a Catholic author that his chief character shall be a Catholic is absurd. A novelist must study types as they exist. The author of "Moondyne" made a study of a man who might be typical of the Penal Colony, evolved by the pressure of unjust laws on erring but human lives. To have put a Catholic or Protestant preacher in the position might have pleased some; but he saw fit to put the man there who actually belonged to the place. The leading traits of "Moondyne" were mainly studied from the life. The author had before him a strong, virtuous, silent man, cognizant of all the wrongs of the law, sympathetic with all the suffering, saying nothing, but doing, so far as his power enabled him, the full duty of a wise, honest, and Christian man. He saw the injustice of existing laws, and he foretold the day when all human codes should be tested, not by the needs of a government, but by the expressed and immutable law of God.
There is not, could not be, an anti-Christian word in "Moondyne." If there were, it should not stand one moment. The words put up and knocked down by Mr. McMaster are not in "Moondyne." They are his own.Mr. McMaster calls on the author of "Moondyne" to submit to authority. It is impertinent to speak so to one who has not rebelled against authority, who respects the law and the author as profoundly as the editor of the Freeman. We must remind Mr. McMaster, in a friendly but firm way, that he is not "authority," nor must all who dare to write a book submit to him for approval.
The book which had provoked criticism on account of imaginary theological defects might well have been expected to show faults of a literary character; for it was composed from week to week to meet the printer's demand for copy. Oftentimes the copy was written while the press was waiting. Literary polish was scarcely to be looked for under such circumstances, and yet the story abounds with passages of beauty and strength. The narrative flows smoothly; and the evolution of character is equally worked out from beginning to end.
In "Moondyne," O'Reilly revealed his inner self as the dreamer of an ideal social condition in which Kindness was to be the only ruler. It is easy to understand how only one who had come through the ordeal of convict life unscathed could have built the air-castle of reform in which the ex-convict "Moondyne," or "Wyville," should be an all-powerful but benignant autocrat. O'Reilly, witnessing the harsh yet ineffectual prison discipline when the mutinous "Chains" were quelled into temporary submission at the cannon's mouth, must have often let his boyish fancy carry him to a time when, invested with full power, he should be able to dismiss the soldiers and surprise the convicts as his own comptroller-general does. Mr. Wyville confronts the convicts and calls out the names of twelve men to whom, as a reward for previous good conduct, he grants full pardon. To others he bears the glad news of material reductions in their sentences. Then addressing the astonished throng, he says:
"Men! we have heard the last sound of mutiny in the Colony."
Mr. Wyville's voice thrilled the convicts like deep-sounded music; they looked at him with awe-struck faces. Every heart was filled with the conviction that he was their friend; that it was well to listen to him and obey him.
"From this day, every man is earning his freedom, and an interest in this Colony. Your rights are written down, and you shall know them. You must regard the rights of others as yours shall be regarded. This law trusts to your manhood, and offers you a reward for your labor; let every man be heedful that it is not disgraced nor weakened by unmanly conduct. See to it, each for himself, and each helping his fellow, that you return as speedily as you may to the freedom and independence which this Colony offers you."Among the warders, opposition disappeared the moment the gold band of the deputy's cap was seen under the Comptroller's foot. Among the convicts, disorder hid its wild head as soon as they realized that the blind system of work without reward had been replaced by one that made every day count for a hope not only of liberty, but independence.
In a word, from that day the Colony ceased to be stagnant and began to progress.
Quite unconsciously he invested "Moondyne," not only with his own mental characteristics, but even with his physical features:
Moondyne, masquerading later on as Mr. Wyville, is still 0'Reilly, in person and dress:
Finally, Moondyne's prison number was "406," a number to which two or three odd coincidences had given a certain half-superstitious significance. I think it was the number borne by the author in one of his several prisons, but of this I am not sure. O'Reilly spoke of it more than once. It was the number of the room assigned him in the first hotel at which he stopped in America. Ten years later, on visiting New York, he was given a room, with the same number, in another hotel.
In his scrap book, written on a sheet of hotel note paper, under the date of February 24, 1880, is an unfinished poem, in blank verse, entitled:
I do not know the meaning of the sign,
But bend before its power, as a reed bends
When the black tornado fills the valley to the lips.
Three times in twenty years its shape has come
In lines of fire on the black veil of mystery;
At first, tho' strange, it seemed familiar,
And lingered on the mind as if at rest;
The second time it flashed a thrill came, too.
For supernature spoke, or tried to speak;
The third time, like a blow upon the eyes,
It stood before me, as a page might say
"Read, read,—and do not call for other warning."
I do not know,—O Mystery, the word
Is lost on senses too impure. I stand
And shrink subdued before the voice that speaks,
And know not that its word is light or gloom.
John Boyle O'Reilly.
The fancy seems to have been nothing more than a fancy born of three singular coincidences. Most men of vivid imagination are apt to look for presentiments in coincidences, and to laugh with satisfaction, as he did, when the foreboding proved to be false.
- The ten years had become eleven when O'Reilly closed the dead eyes of the dear comrade, whom he was soon to follow.