Spotlight on Irish Studies: John Boyle O’Reilly in the Hub

A bust of Irish poet, fiction writer and journalist John Boyle O'Reilly (1844 - 1890) surveys the Reading Room at the John J. Burns Library.

A bust of Irish poet, fiction writer and journalist John Boyle O’Reilly (1844 – 1890) surveys the Reading Room at the John J. Burns Library.

John Boyle O’Reilly was born in 1844 in Dowth, County Meath, Ireland.  He apprenticed in newspaper writing, publishing and printing before immigrating to England at age fifteen to work at an uncle’s paper in Preston.  At the request of his father, he returned to Ireland in 1863 and at that time he became involved with the Irish Republican Brotherhood (later called the Fenian Brotherhood) in support of Irish independence.  O’Reilly joined the 10th Hussars regiment of the British army stationed in Dublin.  He recruited clandestinely within the regiment and eventually brought 80 fellow soldiers into the Fenian movement. Upon discovery O’Reilly was arrested and convicted in July 1866 of conspiracy to incite military mutiny.  He was transported along with sixty-one brother Fenians to Western Australia in 1867.

O’Reilly made a daring escape in March of 1869 on the New Bedford whaler, the Gazelle, arriving in Philadelphia after a host of dangerous exploits along the route.  He established contact with American Fenians, and though he disagreed with the way the group was led and organized, and ultimately disengaged, he supported Irish Nationalism and remained friendly with his former colleagues, with these he collaborated to plan the rescue of six Fenians from Western Australia in 1876 on the New Bedford whaling ship, the Catalpa.

Front page of the <i>Pilot</i> from January 4, 1873. During much of the 19th century, The Pilot acquired a reputation of being an Irish-American cultural newspaper. Notable editors linked to the movement for Irish independence include John Boyle O'Reilly, James Jeffrey Roche and Thomas D'Arcy McGee

Front page of the Pilot from January 4, 1873. During much of the 19th century, The Pilot acquired a reputation of being an Irish-American cultural newspaper. Notable editors linked to the movement for Irish independence include John Boyle O’Reilly, James Jeffrey Roche and Thomas D’Arcy McGee.

Still a young man, O’Reilly settled in Boston and enjoyed success in writing and publishing, becoming editor of the Pilot, the country’s foremost Catholic newspaper, in 1874. The paper had a national weekly circulation of 103,000, offering news on political developments in Ireland to its subscribers, the majority of whom were Irish immigrants.  He married Mary Murphy of Charlestown, with whom he had three daughters. His writings professed love of family, and some of his poetry attests to his beautiful thoughts on love.

O’Reilly crossed great social and ethnic divides with warmth and grace and was effective in fostering better relations between long-term New Englanders of the Protestant faith and Irish Catholic immigrants in the city. A great proponent of good citizenship O’Reilly urged fellow Irishmen and women and other immigrants to become active in American political and civic life.

Not only an avid advocate of Irish independence, O’Reilly was passionate about equality and equity for the downtrodden and all victims of racial, ethnic, class, and religious discrimination and oppression. O’Reilly worked to raise the consciousness of his readers about poverty and human misery.  He defended the right to organize, called for legislation on such issues as minimum wages, compulsory arbitration, and more effective factory inspection procedures to ensure safety and limits on child and female labor.

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

O’Reilly died in 1890 and a public monument in the Back Bay Fens area in Boston speaks to the high regard in which he was held.  The committee to erect the monument hired Daniel Chester French who designed the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.  The proposed $20,000.00 fee to do the work was raised by public subscriptions, yet another testament to how Bostonians loved John Boyle O’Reilly.

To learn more about John Boyle O’Reilly, his family, work and  political affiliations visit the Burns Library and view the John Boyle O’Reilly Papers.

View more information and part of the letter from Daniel Chester French with his proposal for the design and creation of the O’Reilly monument in the Burns Library post on James Jeffrey Roche Letters. The James Jeffrey Roche Letters are also fully available online at http://hdl.handle.net/2345/1119 as part of the Boston College University Libraries Digital Collections.  If you have questions, please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.

  • Kathleen Williams, Irish Studies Librarian.

Bibliography

Boylan, Henry.  A Dictionary of Irish Biography. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, c. 1998.

Evans, Anthony G. Fanatic Heart:  A Life of John Boyle O’Reilly, 1844-1890. Nedlands,               W.A.: University of Western Australia Press, 1997.

Kenneally, Ian. From the Earth, a Cry: The Life of John Boyle O’Reilly. Cork : Collins,                 2011.

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

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 200,000 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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