John Boyle O’Reilly: A Boston Irishman for all seasons

July marks a key moment for a man who had a huge impact on Boston and beyond
The date July 9, 2013, marks the 147th anniversary of an event that eventually pushed a remarkable Irishman to Boston. On that summer day in 1866, 22-year-old John Boyle O’Reilly was court-martialed for treason against the British Crown and sentenced to be hanged. He would escape the noose, escape from one of the world’s most hellish prisons, and in Boston would become, said Oliver Wendell Holmes, “the most famous Irishman in America.” He was also a man whom few in present-day Boston, or the entire US for that matter, could match for personal integrity, political and social courage, and unwavering core principles.

Editor of the Boston Pilot, reporter, essayist, novelist, athlete, soldier, and Irish nationalist, John Boyle O’Reilly was all of these. He would also remain something else – Convict No. 9843, spared the gallows but deported instead to “penal servitude” in Western Australia, a sentence that, in effect, was simply a longer death sentence through hard labor and confinement in notorious Fremantle Gaol.
Born at Castle Dowth, near Drogheda, Co. Meath, on June 28, 1844, John Boyle O’Reilly was the son of a schoolmaster, William David O’Reilly and his wife Eliza (Boyle). As a teen, he apprenticed at the Drogheda Argus and the Preston (England) Guardian.
Embracing the tenets of the Fenian movement, which had as its main goal Ireland’s independence from the British Empire, O’Reilly enlisted in the British Tenth Hussars in 1863, not to serve as a soldier of the Crown, but to recruit Irish-born soldiers to the Fenian cause and to foment rebellion in the ranks. With nearly a third of the British Army composed of Irishmen, O’Reilly persuaded many to join the movement in Dublin.
The Fenian mission of the muscular, square-jawed, mustachioed Irishman, was unearthed by infiltrators and informers. In 1866, O’Reilly was seized by soldiers in Dublin and shackled in a military prison to await court-martial for treason against the Crown.
On July 9, 1866, the 22-year-old O’Reilly was sentenced to death and thereafter languished in solitary confinement in a dark British cell in Millbank for several months before he was incarcerated in several equally brutal British jails. Only his bullish physical and emotional constitution saved him from cracking.
In 1867, he received another disheartening sentence, though it saved him from the gallows or the firing squad. He was given 20 years of penal servitude and was to be shipped with 62 other political prisoners to a prison in Fremantle, in Western Australia, where privation and grueling labor in the sun-baked bush country routinely killed some of the strongest prisoners. O’Reilly was hauled aboard the transport ship Hougoumont in 1867 for the nightmarish voyage “round the known world.” O’Reilly would recall: “Only those who have stood within the bars and heard the din of devils and the appalling sounds of despair, blended in a (din) that make (s) every hatch-mouth a vent of hell, can imagine the horrors of the hold of a convict ship.”
At 3 a.m. on January 10, 1868, the Hougoumont dropped anchor off Fremantle,
Western Australia, where, a Fenian wrote, the convicts “could see high above the little town and the woodland about it, the great white stone prison which represents Fremantle’s reason for existence.”
The convicts were soon prodded in chains to their new “home,” where they were assigned to road crews, always under the eyes and eager trigger fingers of the guards, enduring a back-breaking mind-and soul-killing routine that ended only with death or a ruined constitution.
The desperate O’Reilly dreamed of escape. He was befriended by Father Patrick McCabe, the parish priest of the bush country and a supporter of the Fenian cause. When O’Reilly blurted out that he would rather take his chances in the bush than endure another day of prison, Father McCabe, risking his own freedom, offered to help the young prisoner. In February 1869, the priest bribed the captain of a New Bedford whaling bark anchored off Bunbury, Australia, to smuggle aboard a human cargo. That cargo was supposed to be John Boyle O’Reilly.
Under the cover of night, O’Reilly sneaked out of the jail and into the bush country. He hid beneath “a great gum-tree at the woodside” and waited for two escorts, one a man named Maguire, both of whom had been picked for the job by Father McCabe. Near midnight, O’Reilly heard footsteps that could belong to a prison search party; however when he heard the song “St. Patrick’s Day” whistled – the signal from his fellow plotters – he relaxed for a fleeting moment. Quickly hopping atop the horse Maguire provided, O’Reilly galloped with the pair for hours to a dry swamp bed near the ocean where they hid and waited.
Sometime before dawn, O’Reilly clambered into a longboat, and the oarsmen pulled until they reached the far shore of Geography Bay, where the whaler Vigilant was supposed to pick up the Fenian. The ship arrived in the afternoon, but did not spot O’Reilly. The following morning, he set out in a dory and spotted the whaler, but to his horror, she sailed away.
Forced to row back to shore and hide amid sand dunes, he languished for several days, tormented by thirst and hunger. Maguire and the other guide found him there and delivered the welcome news that another New Bedford whaler, the Gazelle, would pick him up the following morning. Thanks to Father McCabe, who had paid a pricey ten pounds out of his own pocket for his suffering friend’s passage, O’Reilly still had a chance to escape. At dawn, O’Reilly, Maguire, and the third man rowed past the headland to a rendezvous point and waited. Sometime in the early afternoon, O’Reilly, after an emotional thanks to his friends, climbed aboard the waiting Gazelle.
As the shoreline of Australia faded in the distance, John Boyle O’Reilly breathed as a free man for the first time in nearly three years. He would soon enough set foot in Boston, where he would carve out a remarkable career as one of nineteenth-century America’s most prominent Irish immigrants.