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"Be silent and safe — silence never betrays you"

Updated: Mar 18, 2023

newspaper clipping of the ship Gazelle
The Ship Gazelle was built in Mattapoisett by Wilson Barstow in 1852

Transcription of an article that first appeared in the Standard-Times in March 1944.

One of the notable anniversaries this year - one in which New Bedford may claim a share - is the 100th anniversary of the birth of John Boyle O'Reilly. Though he died more than 50 years ago, the influence of John Boyle O'Reilly goes marching on. His memory is enshrined in the hearts of those who call Ireland the land of their sires, and some of his orations and his verses have become a part of the America he loved.

New Bedford shares in this anniversary from the fact that it was on the New Bedford whaling bark Gazelle, Captain David R. Gifford, that O'Reilly made his escape from his Australian prison. It was a strange combination of circumstances that an Irish youth should have found his way to America in this manner.

O'Reilly was born June 28, 1844, one of eight children, the second son of William David O'Reilly and his wife, Eliza Boyle O'Reilly. His birthplace was Dowth Castle, County Meath. No more romantic spot could have been chosen. It was on the bank of the Boyne River, four miles above Drogheda, the place where St. Patrick landed when he came to Ireland and the royal seat of Tara. Three miles away was the hill of Slane, where St. Patrick lit his fire on Beltane night. Within a radius of two miles was the spot where King James lost his crown and the liberties of Ireland.

Printer's Apprentice

O'Reilly's story is best told in the biography written by James Jeffrey Roche, published in 1891 with an introductory foreword by James Cardinal Gibbons. Dowth Castle, where O'Reilly spent the first 11 years of his life, was a place of romantic beauty and greatly influenced the youth who passed his early years there. His first employment was as a printer's apprentice on the Drogheda Argus. A visit to his aunt in Preston, England, in 1859 led to his employment as a typesetter in the office of the Preston Guardian. A year later found himself a member of the Lancashire Rifle Volunteers.

O'Reilly returned to Ireland in 1863. He was 19, just an age when the life of a soldier seemed attractive. He enlisted as a trooper in the 10th Hussars to find that the Fenian movement summed up the discontent with which Ireland seethed. It was carried on under cover of secrecy and enlisted the support of Irishmen desirous of seeing Ireland free. Treasonable songs and ballads made the rounds of the Irish barracks.

John Devoy, who later came to New York to carry on the movement for Irish freedom, was an agent of the revolutionary party in Ireland and he was one of those who helped to enroll Irish soldiers in the Fenian movement. Treason became so open that spies were sent among the Irish regiments to ferret out the guilty ones.

The blow finally came, and O'Reilly, with others, was arrested in 1866. He was convicted at a court-martial and began serving his prison term in Mountjoy prison in September. Some of O'Reilly's first poems were written with a nail on the wall of his prison cell. His jailers found where he had inscribed the words: "Once an English soldier, now an Irish felon and proud of the exchange."

In Solitary Confinement

Transferred to England, O'Reilly was first imprisoned at Pentonville and then went to solitary imprisonment at Millbank. The one book he was permitted to have was "The Imitation of Christ." His time in solitary confinement completed, O'Rilley was put to work in the prison brickyards at Chatham, where he made an unsuccessful attempt to escape. His next place of imprisonment was at Dartmoor, where American prisoners had been confined during the War of 1812. Again there was an unsuccessful escape attempt. Finally came the transfer to Portland, pending transportation to Australia.

O'Reilly was one of 63 Irish political prisoners who left England on the prison ship Hougoumont. To while away the tedious trip, the prisoners were permitted to have pen and paper. There appeared a prison ship paper to which prisoners contributed pieces. Here appeared the original draft of "The Flying Dutchman," together with some other poems from his pen.

"Only those who have stood within the bars and heard the din of devils and the appalling sounds of despair can imagine the horrors of the hold of a convict ship." - John Boyle O'Reilly

The Hougoumont [named after the now-famous Flemish farmhouse that served as an armed fortress during the Battle of Waterloo, for what would prove to be the last convict ship ever sent to Australia] reached Freemantle in Australia in January 1868. O'Reilly was first detailed as an assistant in the prison library until later, he was sent to the convict settlement at Bunbury, 30 miles away. He had been there but a short time when, through a friend, he conceived the idea of making his escape. It was custom for American whalers to put into Bunbury for water. Through his trusted friend, it was arranged that he was to make a run for it through the bush, find his way to the coast, and there go out in a small boat to reach the track of whalers sailing from Bunbury. It was first arranged that he was to be taken aboard the New Bedford bark Vigilant, but the whaler failed to see the small boat.

Fell in With Convict

Now other arrangements had to be made. O'Reilly had to lie hidden in the bush. His plan of escape appeared about to be wrecked when he was discovered by a convict, Martin Bowman. The latter had to be taken into the scheme. Once more, O'Reilly and his unwanted companion were taken in a small boat out to sea, and this time good fortune awaited them. O'Reilly and Bowman were taken aboard the bark Gazelle [Built in Mattapoisett in 1852 by Wilson Barstow]. The date of escape was Feb. 18, 1869.

The first officer of the Gazelle was Fredrick Hussey, afterward a New Bedford policeman, while the third mate was Henry C. Hathaway, later to become ship captain and in 1876, Chief of Police in New Bedford. O'Reilly found a friend in Captain Hathaway, who took him into his own quarters. While the third mate's crew was giving chase of a whale, the small boat was overturned, and Captain Hathaway saved O'Reilly, an event that sealed a friendship between the two men.

Once again, Captain Hathaway aided O'Reilly when the ship was put into Roderique, a British possession, where the authorities came aboard in search of two men who had escaped Australia. Sailors aboard were only too glad to give information as to Bowman, who had become a forecastle bully, but O'Reilly was safely hidden aboard the ship. It was Captain Hathaway who helped simulate drowning by throwing a heavy object into the water and, at the same time, throwing O'Reilly's hat overboard. The scheme worked, and when the Gazelle was at sea, O'Reilly came forth from his hiding place.

When the Gazelle reached St. Helena, another British possession, Captain Gifford thought it wise to see that O'Reilly left the ship. Under the name John Soule, that of a seaman who had deserted from the whaling bark, O'Reilly was transferred to the American bark Sapphire bound from Bombay to Liverpool. Captain Gifford pressed O'Reilly to take what ready money he had, a gift that O'Reilly later repaid. O'Reilly remained undercover at Liverpool until he found a berth aboard the ship Bombay bound for Philadelphia. It was there that O'Reilly stepped ashore in the United States on Nov. 23, 1869, just two years from the time that he went aboard the Hougoumont bound for Australia.

Found Many Friends

O'Reilly found himself in a country where there were many friendly hands to give him assistance. He lectured in New York, and while there, he received letters of introduction to men in Boston who would be disposed to help him. One letter was to Patrick A. Collins, a well-known attorney, later to become Mayor of Boston. Through Collins and others, O'Reilly first obtained employment with a steamship line with offices in Boston. This employment was of short duration, for it was an English line, and the home office got news of it, resulting in O'Reilly leaving.

For a time, O'Reilly supported himself by lecturing until he found employment in the Boston Pilot, a newspaper he later became editor and used as a mighty forum to promote friendly cooperation among all racial and religious groups. O'Reilly had the faculty of dealing with the thorniest subjects in such a way as to retain the goodwill of all factions, and he was a great force in cementing goodwill among all groups.

O'Reilly was the "war correspondent" of the Pilot at the time of the ill-fated Fenian-attempted invasion of Canada in the Spring of 1870, a military undertaking that became a tragic farce.

Stone building in New Bedford, Massachusetts that once housed the Merchant's National Bank
Merchants National Bank, New Bedford, corner of Purchase & William Streets.

O'Reilly visited New Bedford on June 20, 1870, lecturing in old Liberty Hall at William and Purchase Streets, the present Merchants National Bank site. This was for the benefit of his old friend, Captain Gifford, who, with Captain Hathaway, was seated on the stage at the time.

Became Widely Known

O'Reilly became one of the best-known men of Boston through his lecturing and his writings. His first book of poems was dedicated to Captain Gifford, though the captain died just before the book appeared. He was one of the founders of the Papyrus Club, made up of a group of congenial friends given to literary pursuits. The club came into being as a result of the visit of Henry Stanley to Boston, on which occasion O'Reilly gave the address of welcome.

O'Reilly married Miss Mary Murphy of Charlestown on Aug. 15, 1872. She was a writer of verse herself. O'Reilly grew in fame and stature, speaking and writing on the leading issues of the day. He stood with Wendell Phillips on the Negro question, pleaded for the healing of the breach between England and Ireland, and sought to promote a high standard of citizenship. He became a friend and confidant of the great, honored with degrees by Dartmouth and Notre Dame. Longfellow, Whittier, and Holmes were his admiring friends.

O'Reilly is credited with having first suggested what later became known as the Catalpa expedition, which ended in the rescue of other Irish political prisoners in Australia. John Devoy, one of the organizers of the scheme, first proposed to secure a sailing vessel, a proposition which was broached with Captain Hathaway.

The result was the purchase of the bark Catalpa and arranging through the owner, John T. Richardson, to place Captain George S. Anthony in command. There was first to be a year's bonafide whaling voyage, with only Captain Anthony in on the secret as to the ultimate destination of the bark. The plan was carried out successfully, and the Catalpa arrived in New York on Aug. 19, 1876, with the rescued men. The story of this expedition is told in the book "Catalpa Expedition," written by the late Z. W. Pease.

Newspaper clipping of John Boyle O'Reilly
Newspaper clipping from the museum's collection

Died at 46

O'Reilly died at the age of only 46 on Aug. 10, 1890, and his burial place in Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline has become a shrine. His passing was mourned by all who appreciated the splendid contribution he had made to goodwill. President Cleveland, then spending summers in Marion, was among hundreds to pay him high tribute.

Many of O'Reilly's poems have become classics. Early drafts of three poems appear in the pages of the logbook of the Gazelle, now in possession of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society [The Whaling Museum]. First of the logbook is given over to an earlier voyage of the bark Stella, and about midway in the logbook appear the drafts of three of O'Reilly's poems with the signature of the author at the end of each. The poems in the logbook are entitled "Farewell," with the notation "Written on the night I left Ireland," followed by two others, "The Old School Clock" and "The Flying Dutchman."

The opening lines of one of his often-quoted poems, "In Bohemia," express the character of the man who wrote them:

I'd rather live in Bohemia than in any other land;

For only there are values true,

And the laurels gathered in all men's view.

The prizes of traffic and state are won

By shrewdness or force or by deeds undone;

But fame is sweeter without the fued,

And wise of Bohemia are never shrewd.

[End of transcription]

On this St. Patrick's Day, raise a glass to John O'Reilly! Sláinte!

If you think John O'Reilly's mug shot looks familiar, it is! John is one of the convicts whose mugshot grace the labels of 19 Crimes Wine. You can also find Michael Harrington and James Wilson of the famous "Catalpa Rescue."


New Bedford Shares in Observance This Year Of 100th Anniversary of Irish Patriots Birth, New Bedford Sunday Standard-Times, March 1944

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