John Boyle O'Reilly: A Life
Hello, my name is Ian Kenneally and welcome to the site.
John Boyle O’Reilly (1844-1890) was a remarkable historical figure: a man who was an internationally renowned journalist, writer, and civil rights activist. Born in Meath, O’Reilly later worked in England before joining the British army. Ostensibly a proud soldier, O’Reilly lived a double life as a recruiter for the revolutionary Fenian Brotherhood. He was discovered and convicted, serving time in a succession of prisons from Mountjoy to Dartmoor. He was eventually transported to Western Australia from where he made a spectacular escape to the United States.
It was in the US, during a time of intense economic and social turmoil, where O’Reilly’s brilliance flourished. As editor of The Pilot, a Boston newspaper, he became a powerful advocate of the rights of workers and African-Americans. He retained a strong commitment to Ireland and was an important part of the Land League and Home Rule movements, working closely with Michael Davitt. A good friend of John Devoy, O’Reilly played an organisational role in the famed Catalpa rescue. In tandem with his journalism, O'Reilly was one of the most famous literary figures of his day, publishing four volumes of poetry and two novels. A complex and charismatic personality, O’Reilly’s popularity transcended race, religion and nationality and, among his friends, he could count figures as diverse as Walt Whitman, Wendell Phillips, and Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.
O'Reilly would be remembered as a great and generous man but, in later accounts of his life, he was often dismissed as a 'dreamer' and safely de-politicised through selective use of his writings. Memorials to his life were erected in Boston and Ireland but as the years passed the historical memory of O’Reilly became fractured. He diminished, became smaller than the sum of his parts. O’Reilly’s poetry was remembered fondly but the social commentary which underpinned his musings was often overlooked. O’Reilly’s early life was the subject of a series of myths and misconceptions. O’Reilly’s role as a pioneering civil rights activist was ignored outside of African-American communities.
Based on research in Ireland, England, Australia, and the United States, this website hopes to provide you with a glimpse into O'Reilly's life, a life lived on an epic scale. You will also find details of my biography of O'Reilly, From the Earth, A Cry, and the associated radio documentary, The Cry of the Dreamer. This website also details ongoing research into O'Reilly, including the discovery of new material relevant to his life and times.
A Partial Chronology of His Life
1844 - Born in Dowth, Ireland
1855 - Joins Drogheda Argus newspaper
1859 - Joins Preston Guardian newspaper
1863 - Returns to Ireland and joins the British army
1865 - Meets John Devoy and takes the IRB oath
1866 - Arrested, tried, and found guilty of treason
1866/67 - Serves time in prisons such as Millbank
1867 - Discovers he is to be transported to Australia
1867/68 - Travels aboard 'The Hougoumont'
1868 - Meets and has affair with Jessie Woodman
1868 - Attempts suicide but is saved by fellow convict
1869 - Escapes from Australian penal colony
1869 - Travels to the united States, via England
1870 - Joins The Pilot newspaper in Boston
1870 - Participates in Fenian raid on Canada
1873 - Publishes Songs from the Southern Seas
1875 - Assists John Devoy in planning Catalpa rescue
1876 - Becomes joint owner of The Pilot
1878 - Songs, Legends, and Ballads is published
1878/79 - Moondyne serialised in The Pilot
1881 - The Statues in the Block is published
1884 - The King's Men is published
1886 - In Bohemia, his final collection, is published
1888 - The Ethics of Boxing is published
1890 - Dies, aged forty-six, in Boston
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