One Man’s Hero: In the ‘Age of Tebow,’ a forgotten Boston Irishman stands out as the ‘Genuine Article’

What does this exhibit have to do with Tebow or the other celebrities whom so many folks deify? It reveals how they pale when set against bona-fide heroes, the type who stand for or against something with no fanfare and no desire for acclaim. Such a quiet hero was John Edward Kelly.
The aforementioned artifacts, on display at Drogheda’s restored Martello Tower, part of the Old Drogheda Society’s Millmount Museum, are weapons that were supposed to be in rebels’ hands for the ill-fated Fenian Rising of 1867. Concealed all too well by a Brother Furlong inside the local Franciscan friary, no one knew of their existence until a leak in the church’s roof revealed their hiding place 130 years later. One of the abortive rising’s principal figures was John Boyle O’Reilly, a man whose gifts made him one of 19th-century Boston’s most famous figures, arguably the first Irish immigrant embraced, if slowly, by Yankee society. Though a heroic man himself, O’Reilly recognized that it the quiet hero who was and is the real deal.
On a blustery November Monday in 1885, a crowd gathered at Mount Hope Cemetery in Mattapan, surrounding a granite monument cut in the configurations of an Irish round tower. They fell silent as a jut-jawed man with a bristling mustache began to speak. John Boyle O’Reilly, renowned writer, poet, editor, orator, and Boston Irish “mover and shaker,” had come there to pay homage to the Irishman “who sleeps under the monument,” fellow rebel John Edward Kelly, an immigrant who, like O’Reilly, had been one of the “bold Fenian men” in the 1860s.
Many Boston Irishmen of the day shared the surname of John Edward Kelly, but few knew of him or knew that he had sacrificed much for their beleaguered homeland. O’Reilly noted, “We have come together today for the purpose of honoring the memory of a man who was found true in a day of supreme trial…[and] gave example of the virtues of courage, fidelity, and sacrifice.”
Although Kelly, just 35, had passed away in January 1884, he had lived far longer then he had anticipated. For shortly after his capture at Kilclooney Wood in the Fenian rising of 1867, rifle still in hand, he had been sentenced to a “traitor’s” death—to be “hanged, drawn, and quartered” by the British.
Until the ceremony at Mount Hope and O’Reilly’s eulogy, few of the Boston Irish who had passed Kelly in the city streets would have noticed anything extraordinary about him. He had come to the city in the early 1870s, a free man for the first time in five years. The story of how he had escaped the gruesome sentence handed down by a British magistrate and how his path had led to Boston was largely unknown in his adopted city. Now, in the chill of November 1885, another Fenian told it to those gathered round the monument.
The saga of John Edward Kelly’s saga began in Kinsale, Ireland, with his birth in 1849 to a family of “modest means.” Somewhat fittingly, the future rebel’s birthplace near the banks of the River Lee had been the site of the crushing defeat for Hugh O’Neill and Red Hugh O’Donnell on Christmas Eve of 1601 that effectively ending their long revolt against the English. The ruins of a war-battered fortress shadowed the landscape of young Kelly’s town.
As a youth, Kelly was swept up in the Fenian movement, which was organized in Ireland and the United States in 1858 and whose members took a secret oath to create an Irish Republic—by any means necessary. The cause for which Kelly was willing to die was doomed, riddled with informers and lacking the broad-based support necessary for even “a glimmer of chance.” As rumors of revolt swelled into a coming reality, the Crown moved with its characteristic ruthless efficiency to crush it. By 1865, most of the movement’s leaders in Ireland had either been arrested or they had fled. Still, in America, thousands of Irishmen who had learned the soldier’s trade in the Civil War seethed with a desire to apply those lessons to driving the British from Ireland.
On the island, remnants of the Fenians awaited some signal to rise. With no real hope of success, scattered bands took up what weapons they had and rose in rebellion. As O’Reilly would note in 1885, in the doomed Fenian vanguard stood John Edward Kelly. “Eighteen years ago, the moldering form under this tomb went out and faced the bayonets of the oppressor of his country in a fight of overwhelming odds. No matter now about the wisdom or the calculation of chances for success. The motive beneath the act was golden.”
In early March 1867, Kelly had marched with a ragtag band to Kilclooney Wood and faced British steel in a hopeless action. “The few men who went into open rebellion in Kilclooney Wood in 1867 were heroes as true in defeat as the world would have hailed them in success,” O’Reilly said. The 19-year-old Kelly was hauled into a courtroom “before an English judge…and could do nothing but listen as he heard his own name attached to the abominable sentence…to be hanged, drawn, and quartered.”
Although his death sentence was commuted, he and 62 other Fenians were clapped aboard the convict ship Hougoumont and transported to western Australia’s remote, “escape-proof” Fremantle Gaol, which was flanked on one side by shark-infested waters and on the other by the lethal Australian bush. Kelly was lucky to be alive, but he condemned to never again see his homeland and to die in servitude.
In 1871 he and other “civilian Fenians”—unlike the “soldier Fenians” of the British army—were released from prison but barred from ever going back to Ireland. He eventually made his way to Boston.
On Nov., 23, 1885, nearly two years after Kelly’s death, O’Reilly was determined to give his unsung compatriot a measure of immortality. “The highest honor that a man can bear in life or death is the scar of a chain burns in a good cause,” O’Reilly said. “Standing here by the grave of a man who lived and died humbly, modestly and poorly, we are not deceived by lowliness, by poverty, nor even by errors. We find that, after the sifting of death and years, there remains to us his courage and devotion.” John Edward Kelly’s name would soon enough slip out of public memory. In Mount Hope Cemetery, however, a granite marker in the shape of a round tower testifies still that the remains of a valiant rebel lie below.
If anyone wants to see heroism in Tim Tebow’s “fearlessness” in espousing his religion, if somehow the mere expression of free speech with no fear of genuine repercussions strikes anyone as courageous, that is his or her business. To my mind, it is the John Edward Kellys of the world, the men and women who sacrifice everything for what they truly believe – with no thought of fame, wealth, or sycophantic adoration – who are the true heroes.