On Aug. 10, 1890, stunning news spread through Boston and across the nation: John Boyle O’Reilly was dead at the age of 46.
During that summer, exhaustion had plagued this seemingly indefatigable man. While serving as a judge at the National Irish Athletic Association’s annual games on Aug. 6, he shrugged off a dizzy spell as the result of his heavy workload at the Pilot, figuring that a few nights of solid sleep would take care of the problem. Sleep, however, had rarely come easily to him. It was not so long ago that the former Fenian rebel and Royal Army cavalryman had been sentenced to be hanged for treason against the Crown, a sentence that was later commuted to hard labor in Western Australia. He pulled off a daring escape to the United States aboard a New Bedford whaling ship and eventually ended up in Boston, where, wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes, O’Reilly would become “the most famous Irishman in America.”
Early in the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 10, O’Reilly walked into the office of his summer home in Hull, Massachusetts, and settled into a chair. He lit a cigar and opened a book. His wife, Mary, went into the office a few hours later to coax him to bed. She found him slumped in the chair, his left hand resting on the book, his cigar smoldering. When she tried to wake him, he did not move. She sent a servant racing for the doctor.
It was scant wonder that John Boyle O’Reilly had been fatally worn down. Since his harrowing escape from Australia in 1869, he had worked ceaselessly to carve out a brilliant career as a reporter, editor, poet, novelist, and essayist. A man who did not like to acknowledge any physical limits, he pushed himself hard, and in terms of life experience, he was 46 going on 86. His hellish experiences as an Irish rebel and prisoner haunted him, filling many of his poems and press.
By 1876, O’Reilly was a man on the rise in Boston’s and the nation’s literary and newspaper circles. Happily married and having bought the Pilot in partnership with Boston’s Archbishop John J. Williams after the paper’s owner, Patrick Donahoe, was financially ruined by the Great Boston Fire of 1872, O’Reilly was scaling the ladder of success.
O’Reilly’s elation of rescuing the Pilot was tempered by his worry over a secret that only a handful of men knew: The New Bedford whaler Catalpa had anchored off Western Australia, and a plan to free six of O’Reilly’s fellow prisoners from the horrors of Fremantel Gaol and forced labor in Australia quarries and the bush country was nearing its climax. O’Reilly, along with future “father of the IRA” John Devoy, had played a key role in procuring the ship and in introducing his fellow plotters to the New Bedford men who literally helped to launch the mission.
The crew of the whaler rescued the six Irish prisoners two days later, on April 17, and the Pilot was one of the first newspapers in the world to break the stunning news of the plot’s success, an event that was always to fill O’Reilly with pride for a blow struck against his former captors.
For the Pilot, O’Reilly wrote on a wide array of topics that included his advocacy of equal rights for blacks, his diatribes against anti-Semitism, and his espousal of better treatment of all immigrants. He also made the Pilot an outlet where some of the era’s finest female writers and poets could have their work regularly published. His enlightened views on many social and cultural issues notwithstanding, O’Reilly proved a conservative Catholic with traditional views of men’s and women’s roles in the church and in the household.
His status as the newspaper’s editor and part-owner not only afforded O’Reilly plenty of space for his editorials and articles, but also a healthy salary of $5,200. The man who had desperately wondered if he would die in the boiling heat of the Australian bush, and who had been willing to die in his attempt to escape that fate, had truly “made it in America.”
O’Reilly’s written output was prodigious. His literary resume – not taking into account his work at the Pilot – would include the following works: “Songs, from Southern Seas,” 1873; “Songs, Legends and Ballads,” 1878; “The Statues in the Block,” 1881; and “In Bohemia,” 1886. In 1878, his novel “Moondyne” drew heavily from his horrific experiences as a prisoner in Western Australia.
A compelling orator, he was much in demand among Irish literary societies, and at political events, touring the country several times on the “rubber-chicken circuit.” He was also selected over such literary lions as Oliver Wendell Holmes to write the dedication verse for the unveiling of the Crispus Attucks Monument on Boston Common and of the Pilgrim Monument, in Plymouth, in 1889.
Always a believer in the ideal of a fit mind in a fit body, O’Reilly loved sports and exercise, and he wrote “Ethics of Boxing and Manly Sport” in 1888. He was a fine athlete who loved to row and canoe whenever his brimming schedule allowed.
By August 1890, O’Reilly stood at the heights of career success. He was tired, to be sure, plagued by insomnia, but no one who knew him suspected that he was working himself to death. In the frantic minutes after his wife found him unconscious in his Hull study, a doctor’s efforts to revive him resulted in no more than a faint stirring. By 5 a.m., John Boyle O’Reilly was dead.
His public funeral was – and remains – one of the largest in Boston’s annals. Attesting to the status of the Irish rebel and immigrant who had bridged Boston’s social and ethnic prejudices, the city’s Irish and Yankees turned out to honor the man who had lived his all-too-short life with uncommon passion and courage. He stands as both a transitional and pivotal figure in Boston’s history.
Today, at his burial site, in Holyhood Cemetery, in Brookline, a boulder from his birthplace, West Meath, stands above the plot. The stone is a fitting symbol of the one-time Fenian rebel who first fought tyranny, then escaped it, and went on to condemn it in his new nation. In the history of the Boston Irish, John Boyle O’Reilly was the indispensable man.