John Boyle O’Reilly was born in 1844 in Dowth, County Meath, Ireland. He apprenticed in newspaper writing, publishing and printing before immigrating to England at age fifteen to work at an uncle’s paper in Preston. At the request of his father, he returned to Ireland in 1863 and at that time he became involved with the Irish Republican Brotherhood (later called the Fenian Brotherhood) in support of Irish independence. O’Reilly joined the 10th Hussars regiment of the British army stationed in Dublin. He recruited clandestinely within the regiment and eventually brought 80 fellow soldiers into the Fenian movement. Upon discovery O'Reilly was arrested and convicted in July 1866 of conspiracy to incite military mutiny. He was transported along with sixty-one brother Fenians to Western Australia in 1867.
O'Reilly made a daring escape in March of 1869 on the New Bedford whaler, the Gazelle, arriving in Philadelphia after a host of dangerous exploits along the route. He established contact with American Fenians, and though he disagreed with the way the group was led and organized, and ultimately disengaged, he supported Irish Nationalism and remained friendly with his former colleagues. With these he collaborated to plan the rescue of six Fenians from Western Australia in 1876 on the New Bedford whaling ship, the Catalpa.
Still a young man, O’Reilly settled in Boston and enjoyed success with writing and publishing, becoming editor of the Pilot, the country's foremost Catholic newspaper, in 1874. The paper had a national weekly circulation of 103,000, offering news on political developments in Ireland to its subscribers, the majority of whom were Irish immigrants. He married Mary Murphy of Charlestown, with whom he had three daughters. His writings professed love of family, and some of his poetry attests to his beautiful thoughts on love.
O’Reilly crossed great social and ethnic divides with warmth and grace and was effective in fostering better relations between long-term New Englanders of the Protestant faith and Irish Catholic immigrants in the city. A great proponent of good citizenship O'Reilly urged fellow Irishmen and women and other immigrants to become active in American political and civic life.
Not only an avid advocate of Irish independence, O’Reilly was passionate about equality and equity for the downtrodden and all victims of racial, ethnic, class, and religious discrimination and oppression. O'Reilly worked to raise the consciousness of his readers about poverty and human misery. He defended the right to organize, called for legislation on such issues as minimum wages, compulsory arbitration, and more effective factory inspection procedures to ensure safety and limits on child and female labor.
O’Reilly died in 1890 and a public monument on the Fenway in Boston speaks to the high regard in which he was held. The committee to erect the monument hired Daniel Chester French who designed the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The proposed $20,000.00 fee to do the work was raised by public subscriptions, yet another testament to how Bostonians loved John Boyle O’Reilly.
See more about the John Boyle O’Reilly monument and other Burns collection in this post from the John J. Burns Library blog.