John Boyle O’Reilly was born near Drogheda, Ireland, on June 24, 1844. His father, William David O’Reilly, directed the local school, and his mother, Eliza Boyle, managed an orphanage. After several years at his father’s school, he turned to journalism, taking apprenticeships first at the local paper Drogheda Argus and then at The Guardian in Preston, England, where he lived with his aunt and uncle.
In 1863, after four years in Preston, O’Reilly enlisted in the Tenth Hussars, a cavalry regiment stationed in Ireland. However, beginning in 1865 he was also an active member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, or the Fenians, a revolutionary group planning an armed uprising against British rule. He was dedicated to recruiting other Irish soldiers to the cause, but in 1866 some of his recruits within the Hussars exposed his dual allegiance. Within the year he was court-martialed, convicted of treason, and sentenced to twenty years of penal servitude. After spending time in several English prisons, he was placed on the last ship transporting convicts to Australia.
O’Reilly escaped from the Penal Colony of Western Australia in 1869, slipping away from his convict camp and securing passage on an American whaling ship. He then spent eight months at sea, on a series of different vessels, before disembarking in Philadelphia. Once in America, he moved to Boston and began working at the country’s foremost Catholic newspaper, The Pilot, where he became editor in 1874. He remained editor for over twenty years.
Between 1873 and 1886, O’Reilly also published four poetry collections: In Bohemia (The Pilot Publishing Co., 1886), The Statues in the Block and other poems (Roberts Brothers, 1881), Songs, Legends, and Ballads (The Pilot Publishing Co., 1878), and Songs from the Southern Seas and other poems (Roberts Brothers, 1873). Despite his involvement in Boston’s literary scene, only a few of his poems were reprinted in anthologies. Of those few, the most popular was “A White Rose” from In Bohemia. He also penned a novel, Moondyne: a story from the under-world (The Pilot Publishing Co., 1879).
O’Reilly married another journalist, Mary Murphy, in 1872, and together they had four children. He died on August 9, 1890, after an overdose of sleeping medicine. He has been honored with a bronze sculpture on the Fenway in Boston and with several buildings and associations bearing his name.