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From The Earth, A Cry: The Story of John Boyle O’Reilly

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This review originally appeared in the August 2013 edition of Saoirse - Irish Freedom.


From The Earth, A Cry: The Story of John Boyle O’Reilly
Ian Kenneally (The Collins Press)

In his well written and researched biography of John Boyle O’Reilly author Ian Kenneally gives a compelling account of the extraordinary life and deeds of a truly remarkable man who found fame as a Fenian leader, a prison escaper, a poet, journalist and friend of the downtrodden everywhere.

O’Reilly was born in Dowth Co. Meath in 1844 during the Great Hunger, however as his father was a school master and his mother the manager of a private orphanage the family escaped the full horror of that terrible time, though there can be little doubt that, as with the rest of that generation, the conditions of the country during his childhood affected him for the rest of his life.

O’Reilly senior was a great collector of books, especially historical ones, a trait he passed on to his son whose childhood hero was Robert Emmet.  Not unusually for the time John began an apprenticeship at aged 11 as a printer on the local paper the Drogheda Argus, the beginning of a long association with newspapers.  The Argus was a weekly which supported the Tenant League, then being organised by former Young Irelanders.  At 15 O’Reilly moved to England to lodge with his mother’s sister Crissy in the then booming textile town of Preston which had a strong Irish immigrant community.  There he found work at the Preston Guardian newspaper, first as a printer but later as a reporter.  He established himself in a few short years as a well known and like figure in the town joining several sporting clubs and forming an amateur theatrical group.

Events at home still touched the young newspaperman.  With the establishment of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, or Fenians, in 1858 England’s long occupation of Ireland began to be once again challenged in a coordinated manner.  O’Reilly’s older brother William was an early member, in fact he was later to die in prison, and it is likely that John also joined an English based Fenian circle as in 1860 he certainly joined the local militia regiment and the Republican Movement had then a policy of attempting to infiltrate the British military in this fashion.  A diligent and enthusiastic part-time soldier the popular Irishman was quickly promoted to an N.C.O.  However in 1863 he suddenly resigned his position at work and returned to Ireland to enlist in the regular army, the elite 10th Hussars, a cavalry unit based first in Dundalk and later Cahir during O’Reilly’s time.  Both towns were then and since republican strongholds.  Although his friend John Devoy was later to write that O’Reilly only began serious work for the Movement in 1865 it appears likely that his sudden change in lifestyle was due to the promise of imminent insurrection in Ireland.

Unfortunately a planned rising for 1865 was scuppered when Dublin Castle moved first and arrested most of the republican leadership, ironically O’Reilly was to be part of the military guard over O’Donovan Rossa.  Attempts were made by John Devoy to rebuild the Movement and O’Reilly quickly became an important organiser of those trying to subvert the British garrison in Dublin.  Again the British acted first and O’Reilly and hundreds of others found themselves prisoners.  After a court-martial during which the chief witness was Head-constable Talbot an undercover police agent who had pretended to be pro-republican, O’Reilly was found guilty of plotting mutiny and sentenced to 20 years penal servitude.  Moved around several English prisons the ex-soldier quickly gained a reputation as an unruly prisoner, making at least 3 escape attempts.  So when in 1867 following the much delayed Fenian Rising the government decided to transport known “ring leaders” to Australia O’Reilly was amongst those chosen.

62 Fenians together with 220 ordinary convicts held separately were transported on the Hougoument to Freemantle Western Australia.  On board the humane captain treated his Irish prisoners well and they even managed to produce a ships journal “The Wild Goose” to which O’Reilly contributed some poems.  However once in the penal colony the prisoners were exposed to the full rigours of the Victorian prison system where the convicts were subject to whatever cruel whim a warder could think of.  Keanneally gives an example of a warder who taking a dislike to Boyle O’Reilly showed  him an envelope with a black border addressed to him from Ireland.  Knowing his mother to be ill O’Reilly correctly assumed that it was notice of her death but the warder then announced that he was holding back the prisoners’ mail for six months as “punishment” and so left him in distress all that time.  Such pettiness drove O’Reilly to despair, Keanneally suggests he was suicidal at one point but then his education came to his aid.  Transferred to a works gang party in the Bush the warder in charge needed a clerk to do the paperwork and O’Reilly filled the position.  This new job entailed some travel back and forth to the supply depot, escape was not worried about as there was nowhere to escape to.  With this new found semi-freedom the convict-clerk met and became friendly with the local Catholic priest, Cavan born Fr. Patrick McCabe and through him Irish emigrant James Maguire.  Both these men soon agreed to help their countryman in a bid for freedom.  The plan was for O’Reilly to be smuggled aboard an American whaling ship then in harbour whose captain the patriotic priest had bribed.  By bad luck on the very night of the planned escape another prisoner slipped out of the work party and such was the hue and cry that the whaler sailed off without its clandestine passenger but with McCabe’s money!  However, Maguire hid his desperate friend with some of his relatives until another’s ship’s captain could be approached and this man, Captain Gifford of The Gazelle, proved more steady and took the fugitive on board, taught him the trade of whaling and eventually saw to it that he arrived on the dock of Philadelphia a freeman and world famous.

With little more than the clothes he stood up in the ex-prisoner began to give lectures on his adventures to date in order t support himself.  In an age before cinema the educational lecture was a popular pastime and Boyle O’Reilly continued to do this type of  work for the rest of his life.  Through this activity he met Patrick Donahoe the owner of Boston’s “The Pilot” newspaper who offered him a job and such was his talent that before long he was editor of this paper, one of the most widely circulated in America.  Secure in his position as a newspaper editor O’Reilly used the pages of the paper to champion not just the cause of Ireland but that of all people he though of as oppressed.  Over the following years “The Pilot” would lead crusades for workers rights, equality for black Americans and even the most unpopular cause of the rights of American Indians.  Such was O’Reilly’s skill as an orator that he was frequently asked to speak on civil rights platforms on the subject of race relations and he became a firm friend of Frederick Douglass the great anti-slavery leader.  Strangely one civil rights issue O’Reilly spoke against was women’s suffrage on the grounds that politics was such a grubby, violent field that women should stay clear of it.  All his life he had tended to idolise women, his mother, his aunt Crissy and later his wife, however this did not stop him employing women writers at “The Pilot” and uniquely for the time at equal pay to the men.

Although never forgetting the cause of Irish liberty O’Reilly had ceased to be an active member of American Fenianism because of the organisation’s seeming obsession with invading Canada.  But when contacted by his old friend John Devoy, by then also in America, about a planned rescue pf the remaining Fenian prisoners in Australia he readily offered his help and it was largely the contacts he had made while whaling during his own escape that led to the successful rescue in 1874 of 6 prisoners from Freemantle by the Fenian crewed Catalpa disguised as a whaler  He was also to later become one of the most effective fund raisers in the United States for the Land League.  Outside of politics and journalism the multitalented Meathman was also highly successful in the field of literature publishing two novels and four volumes of poetry.  One small quibble with Keanneally’s biography is that he doesn’t reproduce some of his subject’s poems in full.  He also remained interested in sport writing a boxing manual and founding Gaelic sports clubs in Boston as well as being involved in sword fencing and canoeing clubs.

Sadly John Boyle O’Reilly died in 1890 at the young age of 46.  As perhaps with all great men who die young there was some controversy over his death with theories ranging from suicide to skulduggery on the part of his enemies however, as a doctor was actually with O’Reilly when he died because his wife coincidently happened to be ill there can be little doubt that the cause of death was a massive heart attack.  Ian Kenneally does a fine job bringing to life the story of this remarkable figure whose story reads in part as almost fictional in its adventures and achievements.

George Grivas



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