"For a dreamer lives forever, And a toiler dies in a day."

John Boyle O'Reilly, 1844 - 1890

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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Damien Leith

Posted by on Jan 30, 2018 in News | 0 comments

Retravision and JBOA present Damien Leith on Sat March 24th, This Irish singing sensation will perform at the Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre and is supported by internationally renowned singer songwriter Rory Faithfield. Tickets from BREC Ticketing and includes canapes on arrival.


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