Archives Diary: The Making of the John Boyle O’Reilly Memorial

John Boyle O'Reilly Memorial by Daniel Chester French, located on the Fenway, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. This monument was dedicated in 1896.

John Boyle O’Reilly Memorial by Daniel Chester French, located on the Fenway, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. This monument was dedicated in 1896.

The Boston College University Libraries have digitized the James Jeffrey Roche Letters.  This Burns Library collection is now available online at http://hdl.handle.net/2345/1119 as part of Boston College University Libraries Digital Collections. Roche (1870 – 1908) was an Irish born journalist who edited The Pilot, starting as an assistant editor working for John Boyle O’Reilly, published poetry and biographies, was highly active in Boston Irish society, and served as the United States Consul in Italy and Switzerland from 1905 until his death in 1908. This collection of correspondence contains letters from over forty-five individuals, including letters between Roche and Theodore Roosevelt, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Daniel Chester French.  Roche’s papers and his professional and personal connections complement the John Boyle O’Reilly Papers, which are also housed at the Burns Library.  After O’Reilly’s death, Roche took over the editorship of The Pilot and facilitated the design and installation of the John Boyle O’Reilly Memorial, which now stands in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood.  Roche’s correspondence with Daniel Chester French, the American sculptor who designed and executed the monument, is a revealing glimpse into the late nineteenth century art world.

Letter from Daniel Chester French to James Jeffrey Roche dated September 1, 1893, James Jeffrey Roche Letters, Box 1, Folder 13, MS. 1986.041, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Letter from Daniel Chester French to James Jeffrey Roche dated September 1, 1893, Box 1, Folder 13, James Jeffrey Roche Letters, MS. 1986.041, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Daniel Chester French was considered the “leading American monumental sculptor of the 20th century” (From Thayer Tolles, “Daniel Chester French,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History). Born and raised in various parts of New England, French created such iconic American sculptures as the Minute Man statue in Concord, Massachusetts and the seated figure of Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. French’s correspondence with Roche discusses the inception, evolution, and projected completion of the John Boyle O’Reilly Monument. The first letter records French’s strong opinions against competitions for the design of monuments. He expressed himself so strongly in fact, that he was hesitant to read Roche’s next letter in case he was offended. By August of 1893, French had been chosen as the artist who would design the monument and French and Roche had met to discuss preliminary sketches. The later letters, ranging from September of 1893 to December of 1894, discuss all aspects of the monument including the price French charged for the sculpture ($20,000), how the money was to be paid, and why he was charging the price named. French’s insistence not on money but on creating beautiful work is as revealing about the artist as French’s occasional slips into personal commentary. Though the letters are usually strictly business, French occasionally refers to a shared social life, mentioning surprise at not having heard of the death of an acquaintance, or thanking Roche for a book or newspaper article that had been included in Roche’s last letter.

Daniel Chester French's John Boyle O'Reilly Memorial groups the allegorical figures of Erin, Patriotism, and Poetry on one side, and features a bust of O'Reilly on the other.

Daniel Chester French’s John Boyle O’Reilly Memorial groups the allegorical figures of Erin, Patriotism, and Poetry on one side, and features a bust of O’Reilly on the other.

Included with the letters to Roche directly is the “proposition” that French wrote to the committee in charge of the monument. In it he clearly lays out not only the business contract for the work but also his intended design for the monument. The John Boyle O’Reilly Monument is double-sided, with a bust of O’Reilly on one side, and a trio of seated figures representing Erin (Ireland), Poetry, and Patriotism on the other. Separated by a wall of stone carved with Celtic knotwork, the figures are carefully described in French’s letter, offering a glimpse of a visual artist’s ability to translate his work into language. These letters neatly intersect with two important Irish Catholic figures in the Boston area. These three men—editor, artist, and subject—all hold important places in American history and the ability to read such fascinating letters is now easily available to students and researchers.  For more information, read the finding aid for the James Jeffrey Roche Letters and/or contact the John J. Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.

  • Rachel Ernst, Reading Room Student Assistant & Ph.d. Student in the Department of English

About John J. Burns Library

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 250,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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