Early Life in Ireland


Newgrange Mound in County Meath

Newgrange Mound in County Meath


As a boy growing up during the 1850s in the small hamlet of Dowth, County Meath, Ireland, John Boyle O’Reilly would have spent most of his days exploring nooks and crannies of the Boyne Valley in search of natural treasures. Spring being his favorite season; he would have heralded the arrival of the swallow, and watched them glide over lush green meadows, while butterflies danced on a light breeze in the shadow of majestic oak, chestnut and elm.With warm rays of sun on his youthful face, he would have closed his eyes and listen-out for songbirds, such as the lark, blackbird and tit – echo forth their chorus amongst the blooming mountain heather. He would have crossed backwards and forwards over cascading streams, where over the millennium; paths were worn through ancient granite outcrops to join the meandering Boyne River, as it weaved its way across glen and valley.

A boy has come to school.
His teachers are the swallow
And the river and the trees;
His lessons are the shallows
And the flowers and the bees.

Perhaps John’s poem, “At School” was a ‘tongue in cheek’ hint to the world: that nature meant far more to him than his schoolbooks. However, growing-up during the Great Famine (On Gorta Mór, The Great Hunger) would have had a profound effect on the young John, as he watched neighbours starve and desks in his classroom gradually become empty. This tragic event in Irish history didn’t leave John’s parents much option, but to send him across the Irish Sea to England to live with his aunt and uncle at Preston – away from the cries of the hungry, and in hope that he might secure a better future.

Highly impressed by his budding literary skills, John’s aunt secured employment for him as an apprentice compositor with the local newspaper, the Preston Guardian. And with his keen eye for detail and love of literature noticed by his employer; John was offered a job as a reporter with the newspaper.Still keen to keep-up his love of outdoor and physical activity, John enrolled as a part-time soldier with the 11th Lancashire Rifle Volunteers.In 1863, and on behalf of his ill mother – John returned home to Ireland. But he was to miss the comradeship of army life and soon enlisted as a soldier with the 10th Hussars, the Prince of Wales regiment stationed at Island Bridge Barracks just outside of Dublin. But John’s respect and passion for the British Army would soon fade, when he discovered on how cruel they were to his countrymen and women, and which challenged the young poet as to where his true allegiance may lay: to be a soldier of the Crown, or become a patriot for Ireland.

In 1865, John swore an oath of allegiance to the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an organization whose main mission was to overthrow the Forces of the Crown on Irish soil. These revolutionaries were known as Fenians* and their oath was simple:

“I, A B, in the presence of the Almighty God, do solemnly swear allegiance to the Irish Republic, now virtually established, and that I do my very utmost, at every risk, while life lasts, to defend its independence and integrity; and, finally, that I will yield implicit obedience in all things, not contrary to the laws of God, to the commands of my superior officers. So help me God. Amen.”

*Fenians: named after the group of ancient Celtic warriors known as the Fianna.

Convict era chains at Fremantle Prison

Convict era chains at Fremantle Prison

John’s main role within the IRB was to enlist those within the ranks of the British Army sympathetic to Irish Home Rule and who were also willing to take their oath of allegiance further; to take-up arms against their superiors. In other words: commit treason. During that period, it is believed that John had not only enlisted up to a hundred British soldiers into the IRB, but had them ready to take-up arms in an uprising planned for January of 1866. But the British Army wracked with spies and informers – swooped on the IRB and broke the back of the uprising before it could get off the ground. Consequently, John, along with many of his Fenian comrades, were arrested and marched off to jail. In July of 1866, John was court-martialed and sentenced to death for treason, but because of his young age of 22; his sentence was later commuted to 20 years penal servitude.

After spending over 18 months in some of the most notorious prisons in Ireland and England and suffering torture at the hands of prison authorities, John attempted to escape, twice, but was quickly recaptured and put in solitary confinement on a diet of bread and water.On October 10th 1867, the young Fenian would find himself in chains, on the convict ship Hougoumont, along with 61 other Fenians (also involved in the failed rebellion) ) and 218 common criminals – off the coast England and destined for the Swan River Colony in Western Australia:

Farewell! Oh, how hard and how sad ‘tis to speak
That last word at parting – forever to break…
The fond ties and affections that cling around the heart
From home and from friends and from country to part!
But ‘tis harder, when parted, to try to forget,
Though it grieves to remember, ‘tis vain to regret, –
The sad word must be spoken, and Memory’s spell
Now steals o’er me sadly. Farewell! Oh Farewell.

Farewell – John Boyle O’Reilly

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