Mary Boyle O’Reilly: World War I Journalist

Mary Boyle O’Reilly was born on May 18, 1873 in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Her father, John Boyle O’Reilly, was a noted poet and Irish nationalist, and her mother, Mary Smiley (Murphy) O’Reilly, was a journalist.

In 1913, O’Reilly accepted a position as foreign correspondent for the Newspaper Enterprise Association, and was placed in charge of the London office. As war threatened in Europe, she traveled undercover to report from the continent. She was the first American journalist in Belgium and witnessed the burning of Louvain. She was subsequently held prisoner by the Germans. After her release, she remained in Europe and was present in Paris during the Battle of the Marne, and at Calais during the Battle of Loos. She returned to Belgium to work with refugees and also spent a number of months of 1915 in Warsaw doing relief work as people fled Poland. O’Reilly returned to the United States in 1917, and went on a speaking tour of the country on the topic of her war experience.

The below excerpts comes from the Mary Boyle O’Reilly papers. The text describes a heroic act by an American soldier after he received word that there were 1800 wounded soldiers being brought in to camp. The words that O’Reilly used to describe the soldier seem to be an appeal to American nationalism, as one can easily get a sense of the man’s machismo and heroic attitude from reading the excerpt.


Box 1, Folder 12, Mary Boyle O’Reilly Papers, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In this excerpt, O’Reilly writes on a Catholic Mass whose message was decidedly un-Catholic. The priest, speaking to a congregation entirely comprised of women and children, implored his congregation to “Kill more Germans.” Although the Church stepped in and censored the priest in question, his advocating the killing of Germans illustrates how the war impacted those who experienced the trauma of the conflict first hand.


Box 1, Folder 12, Mary Boyle O’Reilly Papers, MS.2003.045, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In this excerpt, O’Reilly focuses on the tragic plight of Belgium and her people. Although the Great War was an unmitigated tragedy for most of the European nations, Belgium was, as O’Reilly highlights, betrayed by belligerents on both sides of the conflict, and the result was the decimation of the little nation. it is small wonder why Belgians: “suspect everyone.”

ms03-45 box 1 folder 12.jpg

Box 1, Folder 12, Mary Boyle O’Reilly Papers, MS.2003.045, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In this excerpt, O’Reilly describes a bombardment of a city in Northern France occupied by the British, and the ensuing evacuation of the city. The excerpt goes particularly into detail when discussing the evacuation of the city’s children. O’Reilly stresses the innocence and naivety of the children in a successful attempt to appeal to the emotions of the audience.

ms03-45 box 1 folder 12 1.jpg

Box 1, Folder 12, Mary Boyle O’Reilly Papers, MS.2003.045, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.


  • Juan Santini, MCAS ’16 & Gerard Gigante, CSOM ’16, Spring 2016 Making History Public students

The images and content in this blog post are from the exhibit Propaganda & the Great War, which is now on display in the History Department, Stokes 3rd Floor South.    This exhibit was curated and organized by Professor Robert Savage’s Spring 2016 Making History Public class, in collaboration with the Boston College University Libraries.

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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