Friday, October 13, 2017

John Boyle O'Reilly - Irish Patriot, American Journalist, Poet

by Arthur Russell

“The world is large when its weary leagues two loving hearts divide. 
The world is small when your enemy is loose on the other side.”

These lines were quoted by United States President John F. Kennedy in his address to the Irish Parliament (Dáil Eireann), during his visit to Ireland in June 1963. The lines describe the heartache and trauma of Irish emigration which had become an enduring feature of life in Ireland arising from mid nineteenth century social upheavals caused by chronic famine coupled with serious agrarian disturbance.

The President was quoting from one of his favourite writers, John Boyle O’Reilly, who as editor of the paper “The Pilot” and a prolific writer and lecturer, was a dominant and well regarded commentator on the Boston scene during the last decades of the 19th century.

Who was John Boyle O’Reilly?
He was born in Ireland in June 1844, in Netterville House in Dowth, County Meath near the town of Drogheda; within sight of the 5000 year-old Megalithic tomb complex of Newgrange and its sister site of Knowth in the River Boyne valley. Both of his parents, William David O’Reilly and Eliza Boyle; were school teachers and ardent Irish Nationalists, features that contributed to O’Reilly’s love of reading about all things Irish as well as his gift for writing.

When he was 15, he went to live with his uncle and aunt in Preston in Lancashire where he worked as a young reporter with a local newspaper. While here he joined the 11th Lancashire Rifle Volunteers. He returned to Ireland in 1863, and enlisted in the 10th Hussars. As a fresh recruit, he became disillusioned by the Imperial authorities treatment of the native Irish population which caused him to encourage 80 fellow soldiers to join the newly formed Irish Republican Brotherhood, which became commonly known as “the Fenians”. In the aftermath of an abortive insurrection in 1866, O’Reilly, along with many other Fenian activists were arrested. He was sentenced to be executed, but due to his relative youth (aged 22 years) this was commuted to 20 years imprisonment with hard labour. A year and a half was served in English prisons from which he made several unsuccessful attempts to escape which earned him long periods of solitary confinement before he was transported to serve the remainder of his term in a penal colony in Australia. He had the distinction of being a member of the last group of transportees to be sent to Australia. This was on board the ship Hougoumont where he and a number of fellow Fenian prisoners produced a handwritten newspaper called The Wild Goose which included poems and stories drawn from the experiences of his fellow convicts on board. Seven editions of The Wild Goose were produced, one set of which survives in the State Library of New South Wales.

Convict life in Western Australia
On arrival in Australia he was assigned to a convict camp in the town of Bunbury in Western Australia in 1868. Within a year, and with the help and encouragement of the local Catholic priest, Father Patrick McCabe and some farmers from the nearby town of Dardanup, O’Reilly determined to escape from Australia. Following a prearranged plan, he and a fellow Fenian prisoner absconded from the convict camp and made their way to the Leshenault Peninsula where they had to wait for two weeks before being picked up by the American ship Gazelle which brought him from Australia. After a long voyage with several stops where he was in constant danger of being rearrested, he arrived in Boston in November 1869.

Arrival in Boston
Here, O’Reilly became involved with the burgeoning Irish American community, including its civil rights and sporting activities. Due to his considerable writing skills, he became part owner of the Pilot newspaper and began serious writing. His first book of poetry “Songs from the Southern Seas” was published in 1873. During the following decade, there were other poetry collections; Songs, Legends and Ballads (1878), The Statues in the Block (1881), In Bohemia (1886). In 1879 he published a novel Moondyne in 1879 based on his convict experiences in Australia, which was very popular among Irish Americans. His final collection of poems, Watchwords was published after his death in 1890.

O’Reilly’s life in Boston
O’Reilly’s first newspaper assignment was to cover the Fenian Convention in Boston in 1870, and the abortive Fenian led invasion of British ruled Canada, the most significant action of which was the Battle of Ridgeway in 1866 where the Irish Americans were repulsed by the Canadians. Overall, the military venture into Canada was a total disaster and was responsible for O’Reilly changing his views on Fenian militarism as a means for achieving political ends in either Canada or his native Ireland. Instead he saw the need to raise the status and self esteem of his fellow Irish immigrants to America as a better way to improve their lot in their adopted land, as well as progresslng the eventual achievement of independence back in his native Ireland through political rather than physical force methods.

He established his home in the Charlestown neighbourhood where he brought his bride, Mary Murphy in August 1872. Mary was also a journalist who worked for another Boston publication, The Young Crusader, under the name Agnes Smiley. The couple had 4 daughters, the second of which, Agnes O’Reilly, helped with her husband William Ernest Hocking, to establish the mixed gender Shady Hill School near Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which still operates. (The school actually began in 1915 with the support of a group of families, as a “back porch” school in the Hocking household until student numbers outgrew this location).

The Catalpa Rescue
In 1875, O’Reilly was approached by the leader of the major Irish nationalist organisation in the United States, John Devoy; to advise on the rescue of six Fenian leaders still imprisoned in Australia. This plan had significant support from the Irish American community and funds were forthcoming to purchase a whaling ship called the Catalpa and its crew for the venture. The result was the successful Catalpa Rescue which saw the six prisoners being picked up just outside Australian waters after dodging naval patrols that had been alerted about the escape. The fact that Catalpa was flying the flag of the United States in international waters prevented the Australian authorities from forcibly boarding the ship.

O’Reilly as editor of the Pilot, was first to break the news of the escape in June 1876, which caused much celebration in United States and Ireland; extreme anger in Britain and Australia.

The escape is celebrated by an impressive memorial in Rockingham, Western Australia which features 6 flying geese which draws on the tradition of Irish soldiers leaving Ireland to join Continental armies after the War of the 2 Kings which saw Protestant King William replace Catholic King James on the English throne. These and succeeding generations of departing Jacobite Irish soldiers came to be called the Wild Geese. This recalled the Wild Goose name also applied by O’Reilly and his Fenian prisoner comrades to their publication on board the Hougoumont transporting them to Australia.

The Social activist
Through the medium of The Pilot newspaper O’Reilly articulated his support for the establishment of the rights of the emancipated slaves emerging from the American Civil war. His immediate focus was a recent U.S. Supreme Court as well as the campaigning of one Henry Grady who advocated what he termed establishing “The New South” which would keep the black population in a second class role in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling which declared the 1875 Civil Rights Act unconstitutional.

‘Never did oratory cover up the weaker points of a repulsive cause so well’

The Pilot printed a series of articles disputing the claims advanced by Grady that highlighted the realities of southern life. The massacre by a white mob of 8 black men in South Carolina in December 1889 prompted the following editorial from O’Reilly. To some extent, it reflects his undimmed Irish Nationalism, along with inevitable opposition against the “Anglo Saxon”; at the same time encouraging opposition “by law first and by manly force in extremity.”

The black race in the South must face the inevitable, soon or late, and the inevitable is - DEFEND YOURSELF. If they shrink from this, they will be trampled on with yearly increasing cruelty until they have sunk back from the great height of American freedom to which the war-wave carried them. And in the end, even submission will not save them. On this continent there is going to be no more slavery. That is settled forever. Not even voluntary slavery will be tolerated. Therefore, unless the Southern blacks learn to defend their homes, women, and lives, by law first and by manly force in extremity, they will be exterminated like the Tasmanian and Australian blacks. No other race has ever obtained fair play from the Anglo-Saxon without fighting for it, or being ready to fight. The Southern blacks should make no mistake about the issue of the struggle they are in. They are fighting for the existence of their race; and they cannot fight the Anglo-Saxon by lying down under his feet.

This editorial roused considerable criticism across the country to which the Pilot faithfully published and responded. Replying to the St. Louis newspaper Church Progress that: ‘It is neither Catholic nor American to rouse the negroes of the South to open and futile rebellion’ O’Reilly wrote: ‘True, and the Pilot has not done so. We have appealed only to the great Catholic and American principle of resisting wrong and outrage, of protecting life and home and the honour of families by all lawful means, even the extremest, when nothing else remains to be tried.’

His anti-racist views as well as his support for minorities suffering from various forms of discrimination made him a much sought after speaker promoting better race and inter-ethnic relations across the country.

By contrast, O’Reilly’s views of Women’s suffrage remained consistently “conservative” based on sincerely held views that society and civilisation was ultimately under pinned by violence. He contended that Society was a blend of competing interests each of which was backed by men willing and able to fight for what they believed. In this scenario, O’Reilly saw women’s lack of physical strength in protecting their own interests as reason not to extend the franchise.

“A vote, like a law is no good unless there is an arm behind it; it cannot be enforced. This is a shameful truth, perhaps, but it is true”.

"We want no contest with women; they are higher, truer, nobler, smaller, meaner, more faithful, more frail, gentler, more envious, less philosophic, more merciful - oh, far more merciful and kind and lovable and good than men are. Those of them that are Catholics, are better Catholics than their husbands and sons; those who are Protestants are better Christians than theirs. Women have all the necessary qualities to make good men; but they must give their time and attention to it while the men are boys."He had well defined views on the role of newspapers and journalists in keeping society on the straight and narrow. Journalism should be much much more than “muckraking and manufactured outrage”, their role being to explain the world to readers honestly and clearly.

Surely this is a current theme in an age of so-called “fake news” (real and/or alleged)?

O’Reilly’s published writings

His published writings were well received to the extent that he was often commissioned to write commemorative pieces for special events. Some of his works are still highly regarded.

Possibly his best known poem is “The Cry of the Dreamer”, which shows his love for Ireland and his memories of boyhood days in the rural countryside near the River Boyne in Ireland which he would never see again; (“the dear old river, where I dreamed my youth away”). It also articulates his tedium with “heart weary building and spoiling, and spoiling and building again”; which was part and parcel of his new life in Boston; as well as his awareness of his adopted city’s (“crowded hives of men”) social inequalities. (“no pride but pity for the burdens the rich endure” as against “nothing sweet in the city but the patient lives of the poor”). The poor of the cities, the black population struggling to find their way to true freedom, the native Indian being driven from their ancestral lands as well as the many ethnic groups, including his own Irish immigrants trying to make their way in a new land all feature in O’Reilly’s writings.

I am tired of planning and toiling
In the crowded hives of men;
Heart-weary of building and spoiling,
And spoiling and building again.
And I long for the dear old river,
Where I dreamed my youth away;
For a dreamer lives forever,
And a toiler dies in a day.

I am sick of the showy seeming
Of a life that is half a lie;
Of the faces lined with scheming
In the throng that hurries by.
From the sleepless thoughts' endeavour,
I would go where the children play;
For a dreamer lives forever,
And a thinker dies in a day.

I can feel no pride, but pity
For the burdens the rich endure;
There is nothing sweet in the city
But the patient lives of the poor.
Oh, the little hands too skillful,
And the child-mind choked with weeds!
The daughter's heart grown willful,
And the father's heart that bleeds!

No, no! from the street's rude bustle,
From the trophies of mart and stage,
I would fly to the woods' low rustle
And the meadows' kindly page.
Let me dream as of old by the river,
And be loved for the dream alway;
For a dreamer lives forever,
And a toiler dies in a day.

Among his more popular lines are the piece “A White Rose”, often quoted at many wedding celebrations wherever English is spoken, demonstrate a romantic side of this talented writer.

A White Rose
The red rose whispers of passion,
And the white rose breathes of love;
O, the red rose is a falcon,
And the white rose is a dove.
But I send you a cream-white rosebud
With a flush on its petal tips;
For the love that is purest and sweetest
Has a kiss of desire on the lips

Death and aftermath

O’Reilly suffered from bouts of insomnia and on one of these took medicine containing chloral hydrate used by his wife to help him sleep. His wife Mary found him unconscious sitting at a table with one hand resting beside a book, and the other holding a cigar. All attempts to revive him failed and he died at 5 pm on August 10th 1890 in his 46th year. Public announcements attributed the death to heart failure, while the official record shows accidental poisoning.

His funeral was attended by thousands of mourners. Five of his Fenian comrades who had found a haven in United States were his coffin bearers to Calvary Cemetery in Roxbury. Later in the year his remains were exhumed and removed to Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline.

Immediately after his death, there was widespread outpouring of tributes to O’Reilly led by President Grover Cleveland who 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 Massachusetts Senator George Frisby Hoar wrote to Mary O’Reilly "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."

Six years later (June 1896), a multi-figure bronze sculpture made by Daniel Chester French of O'Reilly was unveiled on the Fenway, Boston, at which President Cleveland spoke.

Perhaps the strongest endorsement of O’Reilly and what he stood for was from his Pilot newspaper colleague James Jeffrey Roche who published his biography.

"O'Reilly defended the oppressed negroes, as he had defended the oppressed Indians, as sincerely and zealously as he had all his life defended the oppressed of his own race. It was morally impossible for him to do otherwise."

Arthur Russell is the author of Morgallion, a novel set in medieval Ireland during the Invasion of Ireland in 1314 by the Scottish army led by Edward deBruce, the last crowned King of Ireland. It tells the story of Cormac MacLochlainn, a young man from the Gaelic crannóg community of Moynagh and how he and his family endured and survived that turbulent period of history. Morgallion was awarded the indieBRAG Medallion.


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