For Boston-Irish titan John Boyle O’Reilly,
August served up both triumph and tragedy
BY PETER F. STEVENS
At least twice in the life of John Boyle O’Reilly, August had proven to be a time of triumph. August 1876 had brought the news that one of the most daring rescues in Irish and Irish-American annals had succeeded—with O’Reilly one of the chief plotters. In August 1889, the Irish-born and –bred O’Reilly had been chosen in a nationwide competition over America’s foremost poets to deliver the dedication of the Pilgrim Monument in Plymouth, Mass. A year later on Aug. 10, 1890, he made front-page news yet again. Admirers and foes alike were stunned to learn that he was dead at age 46.
In the summer of 1890 exhaustion had caught up to O’Reilly. While serving as a judge at the National Irish Athletic Association’s annual games on Aug. 6, he shrugged off the dizzy spell as the result of his heavy workload at the Pilot, likely figuring that a few nights of solid sleep would take care of the problem. Sleep, however, had rarely come easily to him. The former Fenian rebel and Royal Army cavalryman had been sentenced to be hanged for treason against the Crown, but his sentence was 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 Hull, Massachusetts, summer home and settled into a chair. He lit a cigar and opened a book. His wife, Mary, entered 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 waken him, he did not move. She sent a servant racing for the doctor.
It was scant wonder that John Boyle O’Reilly had been 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 writings.
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 Archbishop John J. Williams after the paper’s owner, Patrick Donahoe, was financially ruined after the Great Boston Fire of 1872, O’Reilly was scaling the ladder of success in his adopted country.
On April 15, 1876, the archbishop and O’Reilly officially became the newspaper’s owners, but 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 Fremantle 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 Catalpa and in introducing his fellow plotters to the New Bedford men who helped to launch the mission – literally.
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.
In 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 might literally and unwittingly be working himself to death.
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 birth-place, West Meath, stands above O’Reilly’s 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.
Words that O’Reilly once penned are still instructive but ignored by far too many Americans:
There are no classes or races,
But one human brotherhood.
There are no creeds to outlaw,
No colors of skin debarred.
Mankind is one in its rights and wrongs.
One right, one hope, one guard.
The right to be free, the hope to be just,
and the guard against selﬁsh greed.