The Forgotten Poet of Charlestown

John Boyle O’Reilly

John Boyle O’Reilly

Charlestown was home to many famous people.  John Harvard’s deathbed donation to the new university authorized by the Massachusetts Bay Colony, resulted in Harvard University being named after Harvard. Warren Tavern helps keep alive the memory of General Joseph Warren, who did not live in Charlestown, but did die at The Battle of Bunker Hill on the June 17, 1775. Many residents know that Samuel F. B. Morse inventor of the telegraph was born in Charlestown.

Many may not remember John Boyle O’Reilly who died 123 years ago, on August 10. O’Reilly lived at 34 Winthrop St in Charlestown, and was the part owner and editor of the Pilot.

He was born in 1844 at Dowth Castle, County Meath Ireland. He was the second of 3 sons along with 5 sisters. William O’Reilly was the headmaster at Netterville Institution, a mathematician and fierce patriot. Eliza Boyle, his mother, was very involved with literature and impressed upon John the value of poetry. At the age of 13, John began work as an apprentice printer at the Drogheda Argus  for 21 pence a week. The owner of the Drogheda Argus died when John was 15, therefore ending his job. He moved to Preston, England to live with his Aunt and Uncle and he started as a print setter and ended up as a reporter. In 1861 O’Reilly became a member of the 11th Lancashire Rifle Volunteers and received military training. In 1863, he returned home and joined the 10th Hussars, the Prince of Wales Regiment.

During this time period, John joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood also known as the Fenians. The British police raided the office of a Fenian newspaper, which included the name of O’Reilly. Along with 4 others he was sentenced to death. The sentence was later reduced to 20 years penal servitude. O’Reilly was shipped off to Australia on the Hougoumont, the last English convict ship sent to Australia. After a 3 month voyage they reached Fremantle Prison. John was reassigned to Bunbury to build a new road. Approximately 1 year later with the help of an Irish Priest, John escaped from Australia, and arrived in Philadelphia in November 1869. John found his way to Boston and became a reporter for the Pilot, first covering the Fenian’s attempted invasion of Canada through St. Albans, Vermont. After Boston’s Great Fire of 1872 destroyed the Pilot offices, the owners sold it to Bishop Williams and John Boyle O’Reilly.

Why should we remember Imperial Convict No. 9,843? His poems tell the history of O’Reilly’s life. His trip from Britain to Australia, then to America, his  love interest in the Prison Warden’s daughter, his dedication to his wife and 4 daughters and finally his strong belief against discrimination of any kind. He was one of the most prominent journalists of his time promoting the rights of Jews, American Indians, African Americans and Irish. For companies that endorsed the policy of “No Irish Need Apply”, O’Reilly used free advertising to claim these same companies meant that Irish Trade and commerce were also not welcome in these businesses.

John Boyle O’Reilly authored many works including four volumes of poetry: “Songs of the Southern Seas,” “Songs Legends, and Ballads,” “The Statue in the Blocks,” and “In Bohemia.”  He wrote a novel: “Moondyne” about his Australian experiences.

At the time of his death John Boyle O’Reilly was a famous poet, author and spokesperson for the human rights of all.  In 1889, at the ceremony to dedicate the national monument at Plymouth Rock, the speaker was not Oliver Wendell Holmes or President Benjamin Harrison, it was John Boyle O’Reilly. The news of his death was reported on the front page of the New York Times. The Boston Board of Aldermen held a memorial for O’Reilly. The memorial included speeches by Mayor Hart, Charles Taylor, Publisher of the Boston Globe, General Benjamin Butler former Civil War Hero and Governor, Thomas Higginson fighter for rights of free slaves and women, E. H. Capen, president of Tufts,  Edward G. Walker, the first black man elected to the Mass Legislature, Patrick A. Collins former congressman. John Boyle O’Reilly was famous.

To learn more about John Boyle O’Reilly, come to an illustrated presentation on Tuesday, September 17, 2013 at 7:00 p.m. at the Bunker Hill Museum. The event is sponsored by the Charlestown Historical Society.

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