Skip to content

Burns Exhibits Shed Light on 19th-Century Boston


By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Nov. 13, 2013

Two Burns Library exhibits offer insights into 19th-century Boston — one through a sampling of personal and collective responses to an intensive period of change in the city, the other in remembrance of a legendary Irish patriot who was one of Boston’s most celebrated literary and political figures. 

“Beloved of Boston: John Boyle O’Reilly in the Hub,” which opened this week and runs through Dec. 10, provides a glimpse at the Irish-born poet, journalist and fiction writer who served as editor of The Pilot.

A native of Drogheda in County Meath, O’Reilly (1844-1890) first arrived in Boston as, technically, a fugitive: Sentenced by British authorities to 20 years penal servitude in Australia for his involvement with the Irish Republican Brotherhood — or “Fenians” — O’Reilly managed to escape and make his way to Philadelphia, then Boston.

O’Reilly attained popularity in the city’s Irish population through his exploits, as well as his advocacy for Irish independence — although he denounced Fenianism in favor of pursuing social justice for all — and his prolific writing. He is widely credited with playing a key role in bridging divisions between the Irish Catholic/immigrant and Yankee/Brahmin communities. Six years after his death, a bronze sculpture was erected in his honor in the Fenway.

The “Beloved of Boston” exhibit includes a copy of his 1879 book Moondyne, a novel based on his experiences as a convict in Australia, and his 1886 collection of poems, In Bohemia. Among other items on display is a typewritten poem, “The White Rose,” that was later included in a posthumous collection, Selected Poems, and his 1871 letter to the officers and members of the Fenian Brotherhood of Boston.

To commemorate the new exhibit, on Tuesday the library held an opening reception with remarks by Richard Culhane, mayor of Drogheda and president of the John Boyle O’Reilly Society of Ireland, and yesterday hosted presentations by Sean Collins — curator of an O’Reilly exhibit held this year in Drogheda — and Irish historian Catherine B. Shannon.

Also currently on display at Burns is “Common Boston: Exploring the City’s Nineteenth-Century Transformation,” which conveys attitudes among citizens and officials in a city that experienced an influx of immigration and, in 1872, a devastating fire. Faced with such changes, Boston had to rebuild itself not only with bricks and mortar but through human service organizations and other forms of social outreach.   

Organized in collaboration with the History Department, “Common Boston” — which runs through Jan. 10 — includes a selection of print and manuscript documents representing individual, institutional, and governmental responses to the challenges and opportunities presented by life in a dense, diverse, and growing city. The exhibit features diaries of 19th-century citizens, theatre broadsides and scrapbooks, the published reports of social service agencies concerned with health and welfare, records kept by the Boston Police Department, immigrant financial records, and images of the Great Fire of 1872.

“This partnership between Burns staff and History faculty and students has been a wonderful way to expose students to primary sources and research methods, have them think about what makes a given document noteworthy or interesting, and gives exposure to our lesser known collections,” said Associate University Librarian for Special Collections Bridget Burke.

For more on Burns Library exhibits, see