John Boyle O'Reilly was born on June 28, 1844 at Dowth Castle in Co. Meath Ireland at the onset of the contrived Famine of the 1840's. His birthplace was close to where the infamous battle of the Boyne was fought. He was the second of three sons in a family of eight children. His father, William David O'Reilly was the headmaster at a National School near Drogheda. He instilled in John an appreciation of art and literature. His mother, Eliza Boyle, was related Col. John Allen, one of the leaders of the rebellion of 1798, who later won much acclaim as the leader of one of Napoleon's legions. It was from his mother's side that O'Reilly derived the patriotic tendencies that would have such an influence on his life.
O'Reilly's journalistic career started at the age thirteen when he went to work as an apprentice printer for the Drogheda Argus. At the age of fifteen, he moved to Preston in England to live with his aunt and uncle where he found employment as an apprentice printer at the Preston Guardian newspaper. It was during this time that the revolutionary movement in Ireland began, the movement that changed his whole career and led to the incidents that afterward went to make him such a prominent figure in Ireland's struggle for freedom and independence.
O'Reilly returned to Ireland in May of 1863 and promptly become a member of the Fenian movement whose aim was to end British rule in Ireland by force of arms. After meeting with John Devoy, a leader of the Fenians, he enlisted in the 10th Hussars, the Prince of Wales Regiment. His purpose was to infiltrate the regiment and recruit other Irish members of the regiment to mutiny and fight for Ireland when called upon. At that time more than 30 percent of the British military troops were Irish. He was very successful in his recruitment effort and also in spreading disaffections within his own and other regiments of the British Army. His subterfuge was discovered after an intensive three year investigation by the British authorities to find the cause of the mutinous behavior of so many recruits within the army's ranks. He was arrested, imprisoned and charged with treason.
On June 27, 1866, the day before his 22nd birthday, John Boyle O'Reilly's court martial trial began. The charge read "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 said intended mutiny to his commanding officer." Although two government witnesses gave conflicting testimony, John Boyle O'Reilly was convicted of treason and sentenced to death.
De to his young age his sentence was later commuted to life in prison and finally reduced to 20 years penal servitude. He was chained to other prisoners and brought to the infamous Pentonville Prison to work in the brickyard. From there he was sent to Millbank Prison in London where he served six months in solitary confinement. After that he was sent to Dartmoor, the most notorious prison in England at that time, to work on the Dartmoor drains. While there, together with other Irish prisoners, he collected and buried the scattered bones of the French and American prisoners of war who were shot in 1814 in 1867. During his time in Dartmoor he attempted an escape but was captured after he got lost in a thick fog.
In October of 1867 O'Reilly, along with 280 other prisoners, 62 of them Fenians, set sail from Portland to the British prison colonies of Western Australia on board the Hougoumont. They arrived at Fremantle in January of 1868 to serve out their years of penal servitude.
Shortly after arriving O'Reilly was befriended by Father Lynch, an Irish Friar who made him the assistant librarian in the prison. Before O'Reilly was transferred to a convict camp in the Koagulup swamp Fr. Lynch arranged that a "Fr. Mac" would look in on him at the new work camp.
"Fr. Mac" who real name was Father Patrick McCabe visited O'Reilly shortly after his arrival at the new camp. During subsequent visits O'Reilly confided in Fr. McCabe of his intention to escape and make his way to America. After much trepidation McCabe agreed to help him. Some months later O'Reilly had a visit from a gentleman named Maguire who had information regarding two New Bedford whaling ships, the Vigilant and Gazelle, that would be arriving in Bunburry and who would be willing to help O'Reilly escape.
At the appointed time O'Reilly slipped out of his hut, mounted a spare horse that Maguire had in waiting, and galloped to the shore, where a boat was waiting. When they met up with the Vigilant the captain had a change of heart and refused to take O'Reilly on board. He hid on the island for a number of weeks until new arrangements were made with the captain of the Gazelle who courageously agreed to help O'Reilly make good his escape. After surviving a fierce storm at sea enroute to the pick up point he was taken aboard the Gazelle on his way to freedom. To avoid capture by the British who were searching for him at ports of call O'Reilly was transferred to the American ship Sapphire off the Cape of Good Hope and taken to Liverpool, where he hid until his supporters secured a passage for him to the United States. He arrived in Philadelphia in November of 1869, at the age of twenty-five, nine months after his escape from his British prison hellhole in Australia.
Although he arrived in America without friends or any means of support it did not take him long to make his presence known. After relocating to New York he delivered lectures on "England's Political Prisoners" to large audiences and had a number of articles published. In 1870 he went to work for the Boston Pilot newspaper, the most influential American Catholic newspaper of the 19th century. At about this time he began his literary career. His first volume of poems "Songs of the Southern Seas", was dedicated to Capt. David R. Gifford, the captain of the Gazelle, was published in 1873 to much acclaim and admiration.
In 1873 he married Miss Mary Murphy of Charlestown, Mass., with whom he had four daughters.
During the ensuing years O'Reilly, with the help of Clan na Gael, raised sufficient funds from Irish immigrants in America and Australia to finance an attempt to rescue his Fenian compatriots from their prison in Fremantle, Australia. The ensuing escape, which took place on April 7, 1876 was based on a plan devised by O'Reilly. The details which were finalized by John Devoy, John J. Breslin and others resulted in the daring escape of six Fenian prisoners aboard the whaling ship Catalpa captained by George Smith Anthony whose undaunted bravery and superb seamanship is the story of legends.
In 1874 O'Reilly together with the Archbishop of Boston took over ownership of the Boston Pilot including a debt of $80,000 the former owner owed to mostly poor Irish immigrants who had deposited the money in his private bank. O'Reilly's business acumen and unbounded compassion averted untold hardship for those poor immigrants who had entrusted their hard earned money to the failed bank. The Pilot which is still being published serves as the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Boston.
O'Reilly published his second volume of poems, "Songs, Legends, and Ballads," in 1878. Shortly thereafter he published Moodyne an account of his experiences and escape from prison in Australia. From 1879 through 1886 he published a number of other books including , Statues in the Block and In Bohemia. He was a member of all the leading literary and artistic clubs New-York and Boston and was president of the Papyrus Club and the Boston Press Club.
John Boyle O'Reilly died in Hull, Massachusetts on August 10, 1890. His death was mourned as the passing of a great and distinguished Irish patriot, journalist, orator, publisher and poet.
Contributed by; Tomás Ó Coısdealha