Beyond Good and Evil

Posted by on Mar 20, 2018 in Articles | 0 comments

In June, 1873, three and half years after his arrival in Boston, John Boyle O’Reilly attended the great Peace Jubilee at Boston. Replying to a toast for the press, he gave an eloquent speech on the value and importance of daily newspapers to society, saying:

“Very often we read the biography of a man who was born, lived, worked, and died, and we put the book on our shelves out of respect for his memory. But the newspaper is a biography of something greater than a man. It is the biography of a Day.” [1]

Later in his speech, O’Reilly chose to read a short extract written by the one time editor of Boston’s first daily newspaper, the ‘Boston Daily Advertiser’, a fellow Irishman named John Burke:

“I call you fellow-citizens! for I, too, am a citizen of these States. From the moment a stranger puts his foot on the soil of America, his fetters are rent to pieces, and the scales of servitude which he had contracted under European tyrannies fall off; he becomes a free man; and though civil regulations may refuse him the immediate exercise of his right, he is virtually a citizen; …. he resigns his prejudices on the threshold of the temple of liberty; they are melted down in the great crucible of public opinion. This I take to be the way in which all men are affected when they enter these States; that I am so will be little doubted when it is known how much I am indebted to their liberality; I shall give better proof of it than words; there is nothing that I would not resign for your service but my gratitude and love of liberty.” [2]

That O’Reilly should choose such a tract is testimony to the transformation in his fortunes and the esteem in which he held his adopted homeland. He had covered the second Fenian invasion of Canada as a war correspondent for the Pilot, and had seen the project descend into a farce and the young Fenian recruits into a dejected rabble.
He had commented boldly on the Orangemen in their annual marches of New York brazenly going out of their way to offend the Catholics of that city, the violence that ensued and the ongoing tit-for-tat volleys that were ever present in the Irish consciousness in America.

But to O’Reilly, the main problem wasn’t the feud between the Protestants and the Catholics. It was the sad sight of the Irish transferring their enmities to the shores of their new homeland.

In the Pilot of July 23, 1870, O’Reilly, at once scathing, wrote:

“Is not this cause for deep humiliation? Earnest men have labored for years to remove that bitter old taunt of our enemies—”You cannot unite.” Patient workers have tried to teach the world, and even ourselves, that this reproach was not the truth. This is the reward of their labor. Our own people, in a strange land, have insultingly turned on their benefactors and flung their labor in their faces. Oh, what a national degradation is this! We talk of patriotism and independence! We prate and boast of our “national will”! What evidence is this? What are we to-day in the eyes of Americans? Aliens from a petty island in the Atlantic, boasting of our patriotism and fraternity, and showing at the same moment the deadly hatred that rankles against our brethren and fellow-countrymen. Why must we carry, wherever we go, those accursed and contemptible island feuds? Shall we never be shamed into the knowledge of the brazen impudence of allowing our national hatreds to disturb the peace and the safety of the respectable citizens of this country? Must the day come when the degrading truth cannot be muffled up, that the murderous animosity of Irish partyism has become a public nuisance in almost every corner of the world? We cannot dwell on this subject. We cannot, and we care not to analyze this mountain of disgrace, to find out to which party the blame is attached. Both parties are to be blamed and condemned; for both have joined in making the name of Irishmen a scoff and a byword this day in America.” [3]

This deep felt contempt toward the infighting engaged in by his fellow Irishmen in a progressive civilised country that promised unbounded opportunity became a prime motivator for O’Reilly the following year when, following an amnesty by the British government, the ‘Cuba Five’ were exiled to America.

These five comprised certain Fenian prisoners in Ireland, including John Flood, Thomas Clarke Luby, John O’Leary, O’Donovan Rossa, John Devoy, O’Meagher Condon, and others, who arrived in New York in January, 1871.
They received a rapturous welcome.

From The New York World, January 21, 1871 – sub-headed “Enthusiasm of the Multitudes – Thousands on the Streets”:

“About 12:30 yesterday, one of the Cunard line steamed up to the dock of the company in Jersey City, and landed the renowned exiles who immediately took carriages, and crossing Cortlandt Street ferry, proceeded to Sweeney’s Hotel. The carriages were followed by a large crowd of men, all cheering the Fenian cause … Upon arrival of the guests, the banner of Erin was displayed from the flagstaff of the hotel, and the doors guarded to prevent the enthusiastic crowd from entering. Notwithstanding the precautions taken, the lobby, bar room and parlours were soon invested by the politicians and others, nearly all of whom claimed a personal acquaintance with some or all of the exiles.”[4]

Devoy had initially recruited O’Reilly into the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and the latter was keen to renew their acquaintance in the new world. However, O’Reilly was to sound a trumpet warning to his old friend. His opening correspondence was bristling with advice from one who was imbued with a new-found sense of pride in his adopted country, who had matured in proportion to the trust and responsibility that had been placed upon him by the men who had realised his talent and worth and entrusted him with an obligation to uphold their faith in him.
O’Reilly is at pains to make it clear that he sees the hooligan element as the antithesis of reasonable conduct that could lead to any successful outcome.

Time and time again in his letters to Devoy during 1871, O’Reilly counsels him to avoid the rabid element of Irish nationalism which feted the Cuba Five upon their arrival in New York. O’Reilly is at pains to share his own experience in settling down to work and erecting a solid base in America before embarking prematurely on plans to fight for Irish freedom.

O’Reilly is extremely strident in his denunciation of Fenianism and its associated movements. Half his letters to Devoy are railing against the blow-hard, reckless element and the other half are encouraging Devoy to settle down for a while and go into business.

O’Reilly refers to the ‘quiet Irishmen’ of the US – and is afraid that this more respectable and grounded breed will see Devoy and the Cuba Five as part of the same rabble they have witnessed for years. He believes that the Irish cause would be better served by gaining the respect and support of America ‘as a whole nation’ – surmising that the might of a great nation would be more useful than pockets of radical nationalists bickering amongst themselves.

Devoy, later to be a leading light in Clan na Gael, and the others were given an address by the U.S. House of Representatives shortly after their arrival.

O’Reilly corresponds with Devoy, January 28, 1871 – after warm salutations, he writes:

” … Nine men are appointed as a committee to go to N.Y. to give you money and address. Eight of them are the first Irishmen of Boston – I am the ninth. After the meeting a Fenian objected to one, and said that the released prisoners would shoot a man like me, who dared to leave Fenianism … John I hate that infernal name – Fenianism. It has done us more harm than thoughtless men can do … that meanly sounding word with its connotations of defeat, dissension and trickery has been a millstone on the neck of our nationality for years past.” [5]

The following month, in a letter to Devoy dated Feb 13, 1871, referencing the welcoming address, O’Reilly writes:

“I fully, heartily, endorse every part of your address – but I must say that I am sorry it was issued – so soon.
The men of New York do not represent the men of the U.S. There is more Irish feeling in New York than in all America. Do not believe the same enthusiasm which exists there is common to the Republic … I may be wrong, but I think the address is premature. Men may say, it is best to strike while the iron is hot. But believe me, the iron has never been hot anywhere but in New York. The great mass of the Irish people have never belonged to any organisation for national revolution. They have held aloof heretofore because they saw dissension and chicanery and impulsive rather than well-considered determined action … Firstly, you only met since your arrival the rabid element of the country: the men who would throw up their caps and hurrah today – and forget you tonight. These men do not represent the vast mass of the people here. They do not represent the millions of our most respectable Irishmen who have grown sick of ‘Fenianism’ (did I tell you how I hate that damned word?) and its boasting dishonesty …” [6]

These sentiments are echoed more stridently in another letter, 1871:

” … You’re not doing anything for Ireland, John, as you are going on now. I think it is a great mistake to try to make the often deceived people of this country come round to exactly the same state of mind that you and I and the others had when we went to prison – and that’s what you think you can do with your present machinery. Oh no, you’ll fail say I … The ground has been harried and worked dry: it must be fallow for a season …” [7]

Despite his stridency, O’Reilly’s tender care for the welfare of Devoy and the other released prisoners is ever present, as is his willingness to be of service to the Irish cause.

Throughout the series of letters counselling Devoy, there are heartfelt passages that glow with gratitude and humility that testify to O’Reilly’s hope and renewal at the opportunities he has been bestowed. O’Reilly writes:

” … But, old fellow, I have worked my way here. I have worked here, against enemies too, for when I left their confounded organisation when I ceased to believe in it, and every individual Fenian seems to consider the man an enemy who does not believe with him – but I would wish to see you, and all the gentlemen who have been released, have as much respect as I have in Boston. John, no matter what organisation you join, you have a right, a duty to make your means of living a primary consideration … Go into business, old man, don’t lose one day about it – and if you think my advice worth taking, don’t join any organisation for at least three months.” [8]

Later in the same letter:

“I wish you could come here for a day or two, John. I want to see you and talk to you. I am editor of this paper – really a big thing for a young man – and I am studying medicine. In three years I will be a medical doctor … Will you try and come and see me. It will do you good to get away from New York for a few days – and I want to shake hands with you, old fellow (it’s half selfishness you see) Bring some of the others with you.”

Letter to Devoy from O’Reilly, May 26, 1871:

“Stick to business, John. Keep your eyes round for a better place, but stop where you are until you get one. When I commenced here in Boston, I worked for nothing – for being allowed to work. Then I got $700 a year – now I get $2,000. Every man can make himself valuable to an employer – and if you only say you’ll do it, John, I know you will.” [9]

Much tumult ensued over the coming years. John Devoy lived to see Irish independence – O’Reilly did not.

In his own way, by means of his quiet wisdom, John Boyle O’Reilly always sought to inject a modicum of dignity into the movement. However strained were relationships and objectives, he never shied from his moral standpoint, all the while striving to forge concord, harmony and goodwill in his professional endeavours and personal associations.


1. Life of John Boyle O’Reilly (1891) – by James Jeffey Roche
Pg. 130 – Ch. 7

2. Life of John Boyle O’Reilly (1891) – by James Jeffey Roche
Pg. 131 – Ch. 7

3. Life of John Boyle O’Reilly (1891) – by James Jeffey Roche
Pg. 117 – Ch. 6

4. New York World newspaper, January 21, 1871

5. Letter from John Boyle O’Reilly to John Devoy.
January 12, 1871 – John Devoy Papers, National Library of Ireland

6. Letter from John Boyle O’Reilly to John Devoy
February 13, 1871 – John Devoy Papers, National Library of Ireland

7. Letter from John Boyle O’Reilly to John Devoy
1871 – John Devoy Papers, National Library of Ireland

8. Letter from John Boyle O’Reilly to John Devoy
February 13, 1871 – John Devoy Papers, National Library of Ireland

9. Letter from John Boyle O’Reilly to John Devoy
May 26, 1871 – John Devoy Papers, National Library of Ireland

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Rite of Passage

Posted by on Mar 16, 2018 in Articles | 0 comments

The escape of John Boyle O’Reilly from the secluded peninsula near Bunbury, remarkable as it was, is only part of his story.

His time as a prisoner of Great Britain, incarcerated in some of the most notorious prisons in England and Ireland, cast a shadow upon the man. This shadow, however, proved invaluable to the formation of O’Reilly’s life goals upon gaining his freedom.

It was the contrast between the utter degradation and hopelessness in British gaols compared to the relative freedoms afforded convicts in colonial West Australia that had a profound impact on O’Reilly.

In a letter to Alfred Webb, written in 1889, O’Reilly articulated his views:

“The feeling of relief at the open-air associated labour of Western Australia, after the rigors of Pentonville, Chatham, Portland and Dartmoor, was actual enjoyment … My memory of the dreadful routine of hard-labour and enforced silence in the imperial prisons in England and Ireland makes me shudder even after twenty years. It is punishment unfit for men … It destroys many; it improves none.
The moral reformation of a criminal under such conditions is abnormal and insecure. The flimsy barriers will be blown away with the first wind of temptations.” [1]

Here we note O’Reilly’s deep-felt humanity and interest in the lack of rehabilitation of those who have been degraded, who have withered further under the yoke of brute force. Contrasting these tortures – to which he refers as ‘regulated inhumanity’ – he waxes lyrical on their antithesis in the Australian experience.

“On the contrary, the effect of associated labour and life in the Australian colony was decidedly beneficial. It brought out the characteristics of manliness, truth and personal honesty in some such way as they are developed among soldiers. In one year I saw extraordinary improvement in a whole party of twenty criminal prisoners to which I, though a political prisoner, was attached. They had all gone to Australia on the same ship with me and the other Fenian prisoners in 1866.67. They were mostly old professional criminals, though nearly all young men. There were burglars, bank robbers, thieves in the majority. They were all Englishmen, most of them from London.”

“As soon as ever they were sent away to the bush to build their own hut and their officers’ and make out their own life in the almost independence of the road-labour, they began to develop as men … Very soon they took personal pride in their free work, the road or round the camp … In a year there were several men among them whom I shall always remember for their manly character. Every one of these men, probably, is free now, if living, and living an honest industrious life. A man released after years of penal servitude in Great Britain is unfitted for life and its associations. He has been scared and drilled into habits of human submission. Self-reliance is gone …” [1]

We have a valuable insight into the frame of mind that guided O’Reilly upon his freedom. One imagines that he viewed his escape as a kind of deliverance – and that he determined that his experience should not be packed away and put down to ‘adventure’ alone.

What did he learn about humanity? What would he derive from such an experience to assist the fellows among whom he would reside and those he had left behind in Ireland?

This is further evidenced by O’Reilly’s life and works in Boston where he settled upon arriving in America. He devoted the rest of his life to the ‘building-up’ of his fellow countrymen, both in Ireland and in his adopted country, their circumstances and destinies – and fought against those who sought to act to the contrary.
His innate compassion extended to the coloured people of his adopted country. His biographer, James Jeffrey Roche, explains:

“When the treacherous murder of General Canby by the Modoc Indians, in the lava beds of Oregon, aroused a clamor for vengeance throughout the country, he took the part of the poor savages who had no newspaper organ to advocate their cause, saying:

” … The destiny of the colored American is one of the big problems to be worked out in the life of this Republic. The day is fast coming when this man’s claim cannot be answered by a jest or a sneer. The colored American of to-day may not be equal to his position as an enfranchised man. He has still about him something of the easy submission and confessed inferiority of a race held long in ignorance and bondage. But this man’s children and grandchildren are coming, and they are receiving the same education in the same schools as the white man’s children. In all things material before God ‘and man, they will feel that they are the white man’s equal. They are growing above the prejudice, even before the prejudice dies: and herein is the opening of the problem. . . “[2]

In 1880, O’Reilly published his novel, “Moondyne”, telling the tale of a convict who escapes harsh treatment and victimisation in a cruel penal system in Australia. The hero eventually escapes, finds wealth and returns to England under a pseudonym. Driven by the desire for penal reform, and owing to his expertise in this area, he is summoned back to Australia to assist in the reformation of her penal system.
The novel attracted harsh criticism from Catholic commentators, though shining through for the layman is O’Reilly’s unwavering view that charity and kindness are the greatest of moral virtues – setting this story in the very land and situation where they burgeoned into full bloom in his own consciousness is significant.

Roche wrote of “Moondyne”:

“In “Moondyne,” O’Reilly revealed his inner self as the dreamer of an ideal social condition in which Kindness was to be the only ruler. It is easy to understand how only one who had come through the ordeal of convict life unscathed could have built the air-castle of reform in which the ex-convict “Moondyne,” or “Wyville,” should be an all-powerful but benignant autocrat. O’Reilly, witnessing the harsh yet ineffectual prison discipline when the mutinous “Chains” were quelled into temporary submission at the cannon’s mouth, must have often let his boyish fancy carry him to a time when, invested with full power, he should be able to dismiss the soldiers and surprise the convicts as his own comptroller-general does. Mr. Wyville confronts the convicts and calls out the names of twelve men to whom, as a reward for previous good conduct, he grants full pardon. To others he bears the glad news of material reductions in their sentences …” [3]

To fight for the underdog became the overarching theme of O’Reilly’s intellectual and moral universe. This extended to the oppressed and victimised whoever they may be. Roche, in his biography, wrote:

“O’Reilly defended the oppressed negroes, as he had defended the oppressed Indians, as sincerely and zealously as he had all his life defended the oppressed of his own race. It was morally impossible for him to do otherwise. If anybody remonstrated with him, pointing out the failings or weaknesses of the under-dog in the fight, he would say: “Very true; but there are thousands of people ready to show that side of the question, to one who is enlisted on the other side.” He could see, above all minor questions, the one supreme issue of right against wrong, and he would not desert the right because it was not absolutely right, to condone the wrong because it was not completely wrong. He bore witness, as follows, to the worth of another oppressed race, in replying to three questions propounded by the editor of the American Hebrew, concerning the prejudice existing among Christians against their Jewish brethren …” [4]

O’Reilly appears to have concluded that men and their projects prosper only once they decide to conduct themselves with honour and integrity. He realises that the degradation of anyone is a barrier to fulfillment. People need dignity, a sense of purpose, a modicum of self-reliance and an avenue to industrious pursuit – only then can they achieve the kind of self-belief that leads to a reasonable existence.

Roche writes that shortly before he died, O’Reilly, in singular harmony with his moral integrity, undertook to give solace to a soul he passed in the street. Nothing better demonstrates his passion for kindness and for the lifting up of the oppressed and downtrodden:

” … Returning to his hotel after midnight, in company with a friend, an incident occurred, slight in itself, but thoroughly characteristic of the man…” As he was walking up Boylston Street, engaged in pleasant conversation with his friend, his quick eye suddenly espied an unlovely object—a woman—poor, old, dirty, and drunken—huddled in the doorway of a house.

Dropping his friend’s arm, he stooped down to the repulsive bundle of misery, laid his strong hand on her shoulder, raised her to her feet, with a word of kindness, arranged her tattered shawl about her, and, gently as a son might have spoken to his mother, persuaded her to go home, and sent her on her way.
It was a little thing to do, but it showed a great heart in the doer. Nine men out of ten would have passed the unfortunate with a look of pity or of scorn. Ninety-nine gentlemen out of a hundred, going home from their club, would have given not a thought to the outcast. But Boyle O’Reilly, whether he wore the dress-coat or the convict suit, never for one instant forgot his kinship with all the poor and lowly and unfortunate of earth.” [5]

1. National Library of Ireland: Letter from John Boyle O’Reilly to Alfred Webb comparing Siberian prisons with English prisons (1889)
2. Life of John Boyle O’Reilly (1891) – by James Jeffrey Roche (page 142)
3. Life of John Boyle O’Reilly (1891) – by James Jeffrey Roche (page 188)
4. Life of John Boyle O’Reilly (1891) – by James Jeffrey Roche (page 342)
5. Life of John Boyle O’Reilly (1891) – by James Jeffrey Roche (page 353)

Barbara Kelly is a member of John Boyle O’Reilly Association Inc, Bunbury, Western Australia

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