“The world is large when its weary
leagues two loving hearts divide,
“But the world is small when your enemy
is loose on the other side.” –John Boyle O’Reilly
As a youth in Ireland he was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, for which crime he was transported to Western Australia. After escaping to the United States, he became a prominent spokesperson for Irish sentiment and culture, through his editorship of the Boston newspaper The Pilot, his prolific writing, and his lecture tours.
O’Reilly was born at Dowth Castle near Drogheda, Co Meath, at the onset of the Great Hunger. Ireland was at that time a part of the United Kingdom, and many Irish people bitterly resented English rule, and there was a strong nationalist movement. O’Reilly’s family was fiercely patriotic, and his mother was closely related to John Allen, who had played an important role in Robert Emmet’s rising in 1803.
In 1875, John Devoy sought O’Reilly’s advice on how the Clan na Gael might rescue the six military Fenians still serving time in Western Australia. The initial plan had been to storm Fremantle Prison and rescue the Fenians by force of arms; O’Reilly rejected that plan, and instead suggested that the rescue party pick up the escapees according to a prearranged plan. He also suggested the purchase of a whaling ship, which would be seen to be on legitimate business in Fremantle. O’Reilly’s plan was adopted, and ultimately led to the Catalpa rescue.
In his later years, O’Reilly became prone to illness, and suffered from bouts of insomnia. Late in the evening of 9 August 1890, while suffering from insomnia, he took some of his wife’s sleeping medicine, which contained chloral hydrate. In the early hours of the morning, he was found dead. There remains some doubt as to the cause of death. Public announcements attributed O’Reilly’s death to heart failure, but the official death register claims “accidental poisoning”. If O’Reilly was killed by an overdose of chloral hydrate, then it is possible that he took his life, or that he was a victim of medical malpractice.