'O' Reilly was in the stable tightening his saddle girths and getting ready to mount and start off to the vice-regal lodge with a dispatch for the lord lieutenant from Sir Hugh Rose, the commander of the forces in Ireland. Byrne had just time to introduce us, and O'Reilly and I to make an appointment for the next evening, when he brought out his horse, sprang into the saddle, and was off. O' Reilly was then a handsome, lithely built young fellow…with the down of a future black moustache on his lip. He had pair of beautiful dark eyes, that changed in expression with his varying emotions. He wore the full-dress dark blue hussar uniform, with its mass of braiding across the breast, and the busby with its tossing plume, was set jauntily on the head and held by a linked brass strap, catching under the lower lip.'
John Devoy and O'Reilly first met in October 1865 while the latter was stationed in Dublin. Devoy, who had experience with the French Foreign Legion, was then engaged as a recruiter for the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
At that time the IRB was working to enlist the many Irish soldiers in the British army into the Brotherhood. By autumn 1865, most of these IRB recruiters had been arrested and John Devoy was promoted to the role of chief recruiter. In his later memoir Devoy explained this new role: ‘I had some acquaintance with the army, through living near the Curragh camp, and, when all the ‘organizers’ for the army had been arrested or forced to remain ‘on their keeping,’ James Stephens, the chief executive of the Irish republic that was to be, appointed me ‘chief organizer’ for the British army.’
Through an acquaintance Devoy met O'Reilly at the Royal Barracks, later Collins Barracks, and informed him of the IRB's plans for revolution. The next day, O'Reilly took the IRB oath and joined Devoy in recruiting soldiers into the Brotherhood. It was a task in which O'Reilly was remarkably successful, convincing some eighty soldiers in the Tenth Hussars to take the Brotherhood's oath.
The meeting with Devoy had a profound effect on O’Reilly’s life, sending the young soldier on a dangerous new path, a path that would lead to imprisonment, hard labour, and transportation to Australia. That was all in the future. O'Reilly survived his many ordeals and would meet Devoy again in the United States. By that stage O'Reilly had left the IRB but he would assist Devoy in the planning of the Catalpa rescue. That story will be the focus of another blog post.
The poem was first published in 1886 as part of O'Reilly's final collection of poetry, In Bohemia. O’Reilly’s determination to address social problems in his poetry is the key theme of In Bohemia. In that sense it is similar to his earlier works. Yet, as a whole, the collection is of a more personal nature than his previous volume, The Statues in the Block. In poems such as ‘The Cry of the Dreamer’ and ‘In Bohemia’ O’Reilly is not looking down on events, as in poems such as ‘From the Earth, a Cry’, but is ensconced in the midst of the society which he is criticising. The poet is on the street and amongst the crowds and he does not like what he sees. An analysis of o'Reilly's work can be found in my biography of O'Reilly.
I'd rather live in Bohemia than in any other land;
For only there are the values true,
And the laurels gathered in all men's view.
The prizes of traffic and state are won
By shrewdness or force or by deeds undone;
But fame is sweeter without the feud,
And the wise of Bohemia are never shrewd.
Here, pilgrims stream with a faith sublime
From every class and clime and time,
Aspiring only to be enroiled
With the names that are writ in the book of gold;
And each one bears in mind or hand
A palm of the dear Bohemian land.
The scholar first, with his book--a youth
Aflame with the glory of harvested truth;
A girl with a picture, a man with a play,
A boy with a wolf he has modeled in clay;
A smith with a marvelous hilt and sword,
A player, a king, a ploughman, a lord--
And the player is king when the door is past.
The ploughman is crowned, and the lord is last!
I'd rather fail in Bohemia than win in another land;
There are no titles inherited there,
No hoard or hope for the brainless heir;
No gilded dullard native born
To stare at his fellow with leaden scorn:
Bohemia has none but adopted sons;
Its limits, where Fancy's bright stream runs;
Its honors, not garnered for thrift or trade,
But for beauty and truth men's souls have made.
To the empty heart in a jeweled breast
There is value, maybe, in a purchased crest;
But the thirsty of soul soon learn to know
The moistureless froth of the social show;
The vulgar sham of the pompous feast
Where the heaviest purse is the highest priest;
The organized charity, scrimped and iced,
In the name of a cautious, statistical Christ;
The smile restrained, the respectable cant,
When a friend in need is a friend in want;
Where the only aim is to keep afloat,
And a brother may drown with a cry in his throat.
Oh, I long for the glow of a kindly heart and the grasp of a friendly hand,
And I'd rather live in Bohemia than in any other land.