John Boyle O’Reilly – 1844 – 1890

by Wendy Birman

John Boyle O’Reilly – 1871

This article was published in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5 , 1974 and online in 2006

John Boyle O’Reilly (1844-1890), author, editor and patriot, was born on 24 June 1844 in Drogheda, Ireland, second son of William David O’Reilly, master at the National school attached to the Netterville Institution for Widows and Orphans at Dowth Castle, and his wife Eliza, née Boyle. He was educated by his father, apprenticed at 11 as a compositor to the Drogheda Argus and at 15 joined the Guardian at Preston, Lancashire, where he became a reporter. Involved in the Fenian movement, he returned to Ireland in 1863, enlisted in the 10th Hussars and concentrated on persuading soldiers to join the revolutionary organization. Soon ‘treasonable songs and ballads’, learnt in his quarters, were sung throughout the regiment. His sedition was not suspected until he was betrayed in February 1866. Court-martialled on 27 June at the Royal Barracks, Dublin, he was convicted of having withheld knowledge of ‘an intended mutiny’, and was ordered to be shot on 9 July. This sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and later to twenty years penal servitude.

After two years in English prisons O’Reilly was transported with sixty-two other Irish expatriates in the Hougoumont, arriving in Western Australia on 10 January 1868. In his first weeks at the Convict Establishment in Fremantle he worked with the chaplain, Father Lynch, in the prison library. O’Reilly was transferred to a road party at Bunbury but was soon given clerical duties and entrusted to deliver the weekly report to the local convict depot. Befriended by the priest, Patrick McCabe, and a settler, James Maguire, O’Reilly planned to escape. Foiled in his first attempt, he hid on Maguire’s farm* until he could board the American whaler Gazelle on 18 February 1869. After narrowly escaping capture at Roderiquez Island, transferring to the American Sapphire at St Helena and joining the Bombay as a deck-hand at Liverpool, he arrived at Philadelphia on 23 November.

O’Reilly promptly became an American citizen and settled in Boston, working first as a journalist, then editor and in 1876 part-owner of the Pilot. A devout Catholic and ardent democrat, he advocated Home Rule for Ireland but now favoured constitutional reform rather than physical force and in the Pilot criticized the Fenian invasion of Canada in 1870. In 1875 he and others devised a daring scheme to rescue six Irish political prisoners still in Fremantle gaol. The plan involved the purchase of the American whaler Catalpa, which was sent to Bunbury to await the arrival of a whale-boat bringing the escapees from Fremantle. Nearly foiled by squally weather and a skirmish with the government ship, Georgette, the mission was successful and the Fenians reached New York safely on 19 August 1876.

O’Reilly was gregarious and always surrounded by a host of friends; he won repute in America as a poet and lecturer. Reminiscent of Western Australia, his novel Moondyne appeared in 1879; described as ‘an idealistic extravaganza’, it tells the story of an escaped convict who returned to the colony as comptroller-general of convicts to reform the penal system. In 1885 he was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws by the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. A fine athlete and canoeist, he compiled Ethics of Boxing and Manly Sport in 1888 and in 1889 edited The Poetry and Song of Ireland. A complete edition of his own poems was published posthumously by his wife in 1891.

O’Reilly had married Mary, daughter of John Murphy and his wife Jane, of Charlestown, Massachusetts, on 5 August 1872. On 10 August 1890 he died at Hull from an overdose of chloral which he normally took as a cure for insomnia. He was buried in Holyhood cemetery, Brookline, survived by his wife and four children.

A memorial was erected in 1903 at Dowth, County Meath. Another stands on the Boston Fenway and a bust is in the Catholic University, Washington. In Western Australia, members of the South West Irish Club and the local community erected another monument to O’Reilly in 1988 near the mouth of the Leschenault Inlet at Australind, from where he made his escape to America in February 1869.

Select Bibliography

  • J. J. Roche, Life of John Boyle O’Reilly (New York, 1891)
  • New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol 10 (New York, 1967)
  • Western Mail (Perth), 6 Jan 1938, 3 Sept 1953
  • West Australian, 21 June, 23 Aug, 20 Dec 1952
  • Pilot (Boston), 9 Mar 1968.

Source of article: Wendy Birman, ‘O’Reilly, John Boyle (1844–1890)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 12 December 2021.

Image sources:

John Boyle O’Reilly portrait:, accessed online 12 December 2021.

Buffalo Hut 1960s: Barnes, P; Marlston Hill and all That Bunbury (2001) , Western Australia

For a more detailed account of the role played by John Maguire in O’Reilly’s escape see: James Maguire – 1834 – 1915

*There are various versions of the story of where O’Reilly was hidden during this time, down a well at the Dardanup Church and up a chimney at Maguires farm being two. According to historian Ormonde Waters he remained in hiding at Buffalo Beach waiting for a ship to help him escape. Dardanup supporters may have deliberately confused the authorities with rumoured locations to distract them from the actual hiding place.

See: Waters, Ormonde D P; John Boyle O’Reilly, an article written on behalf of the Bunbury Historical Society Inc. (198?)