Book of poems by John Boyle O'Reilly

This week Dr Kate discusses the1868 book of poetry by John Boyle O’Reilly, ahead of the Wild Goose Lecture on Sunday 16 October 2022 at the WA Maritime Museum.

John Boyle O’Reilly was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the Fenians). He was one of many who enlisted in the British Army with the intent of spreading pro-Irish independence sentiment. In 1866, after an unsuccessful uprising attempt, he was arrested on the charge of withholding information about an intended mutiny and eventually sentenced to twenty years of penal servitude. Two years later he was transported to Western Australia aboard the convict ship, Hougoumont. With the assistance of Catholic priest, Father Patrick McCabe, and his contacts, John Boyle O’Reilly was able to escape imprisonment and make his way to America, aboard a whaling ship. His successful escape enabled him to contribute valuable insight into a future scheme – the Catalpa Escape – to liberate the last six Fenians imprisoned in WA in 1876

While in WA, John Boyle O’Reilly wrote 19 poems in a vellum bound journal, which he dedicated to Father Patrick McCabe. When the book was donated to the Library in 1989, its authenticity was verified. It was not deemed authentic until Gillian O’Mara translated parts of the shorthand that covered vellum exterior of the volume, using some notes found in the John Flood papers. This revealed that it was by John Boyle O’Reilly.

View the book of poems on our catalogue.

Recorded live on ABC Radio Perth on 7 October 2022.



Christine: So, J.B. O’Reilly. You know the name. You undoubtedly know the pub, but do you know the poetry? John Boyle O’Reilly was arrested in 1866 for being a Fenian aka Irish Republican and he was charged with treason which carried a penalty of death.

Now J.B. was brought here aboard the Hougoumont as you know, arrived in Fremantle 1868 and the convicts at the time arranged…were given a range of tasks I should say. Now he worked in the library at Fremantle Prison before being sent to the South West to work on road projects and would you believe throughout that time and afterwards, he was writing poetry.

Dr Kate Gregory is the Battye Historian from the State Library of WA.

Good afternoon, Kate.

Dr Kate Gregory: Hi Christine.

Christine: I never saw this one coming and I find it so fascinating.

J.B. O’Reilly the poet! What?

Dr KG: Absolutely, and I think that is just the extraordinary thing. So, in the State Library collections, we have this book of original handwritten poems by J.B. O’Reilly that were, as you said, written while he was a political prisoner, a convict brought out on the last convict ship to Australia and he was also a poet and I think that you know, it is extraordinary because what this book allows us to have is a very tangible link with J.B. O’Reilly and he has kind of got this legendary status within Western Australia at least. We know that he went on to write Moondyne Joe published in 1876. The first novel, probably the first novel to be set in Western Australia and based on his observations and experiences in Western Australia. But when he came in 1868 he was also writing a book of poetry and this little book, it’s just a beautiful object in its own right.

Christine: Is it? Yes, tell us.

Dr KG: Yes, it’s quite small. It’s designed to be slipped into a pocket; you know, a kind of hand-held book. It’s bound in velum which is a type of leather binding that was quite common in the 1860s. It’s got a beautiful little brass clasp and the pages inside; they’re blank pages, just lightly lined and it’s kind of filled, probably half filled with his poems and they are hand-written in ink. They are his original compositions and you can see that he’s making marks and crossings out and edits as he’s going along, moving lines and verses. So, you can see that this is his book where he is composing poetry.

Christine: Works in progress.

Dr KG: Yes, works in progress and it is incredibly…I think the other really gorgeous thing about this book is that when it was donated in 1989 to the State Library, we also found some pressed flowers inside it.

Christine: Really? Where from?

Dr KG: Well, that was the question [laughs]. Very quickly I got on to Stephen Hopper because they hadn’t been identified so I thought right, Stephen Hopper.

Christine: To the top.

Dr KG: [Laughs] Yes, to the top. Straight to the top! [laughs]

Christine: Good.

Dr KG: And he very generously and quickly responded and was able to identify them. And some of the pressed flowers are actually a type of viola like a…not endemic to the South West but the other one is endemic to the South West. So, it does position it…place it there in the South West. So, we think this book of poems…it stayed in WA for the…150…it’s now 154 years old. So, yes, just extraordinary.

So, this story I guess what we know about it, is that he probably acquired it, obtained it somehow possibly through Father Lynch at the Fremantle Prison Library when he was working at Fremantle Prison.

Christine: Wow, and that’s when he started writing.

Dr KG: And that’s when he starting writing. We don’t think it came out on the Hougoumont (the sea voyage).

Christine: Gotcha, ok.

Dr KG: Because there are some other Irish Fenian diaries that survived that are held in archives in the USA and in Ireland and they were very definitely written as accounts of this sea voyage and they show the ravages, the effects of that highly salty environment whereas John Boyle O’Reilly’s book of poems is in very good condition and so…we think…he dedicates it to Father Patrick McCabe.

Christine: Now, who is he in the context of everything?

Dr KG: Ok, so he was the Catholic chaplain who was assigned to Bunbury and the area around Bunbury and he was Irish born and he was a sympathiser with the Fenian cause, with the fight for Irish freedom from British rule and in fact, he helped O’Reilly escape on the US American whaling ship, the Gazelle. And he escaped. It’s just extraordinary when you think of it…in March 1869. So…

Christine: There was only 6 of them that got away, is it?

Dr KG: Ok, so first of all O’Reilly gets away in 1869. He makes his way to Boston…successfully manages to get to Boston and he later goes on and has a very prestigious career as a newspaper editor and a journalist and a speech writer and speech maker and he has got quite a high profile within the US and he actually then helps to arrange for the rescue of the six remaining Fenian prisoners and that’s the Catalpa story.

Christine: Gotcha, thank you.

Dr KG: And that’s when the six other Fenians who are rescued in 1876…so the story kind of goes on and it is just extraordinary. Yes. And the poems.

Christine: [Gasp] The poems. What did that say? Poetry is so personal.

Dr KG: Yes, that is the thing!

Christine: So, what did they say?

Dr KG: Right, so I think that is one of the reasons why this is so significant because it gives us an insight into his emotional state of mind and that is something that we don’t really frequently have access to in archives of this period of time. So, it’s a very kind of unique view I think into the mind of John Boyle O’Reilly and they are poems that reflect…I’ve dated them from what I think…I’ll just say circa.

Christine: That’s fine.

Dr KG: [Laughs] Circa 1864 to 1868 and so they relate to the previous five years of his life which reflect his involvement with the Fenian movement in Ireland, his imprisonment, his exile, the ship’s voyage. So, we know that some of the poems do…were written on the Hougoumont and there’s one called “The Flying Dutchman”. I can read a little bit of it if you’d like.

Christine: Oh, please!

Dr KG: And the reason…we know that he made a note saying this was written on voyage of the Hougoumont and it’s dedicated to his fellow Fenian prisoners but the poem is filled with this maritime imagery so I’ll just read a little bit.

Away, away the vessel speeds, - but sea and sky alone

Are round her as her course she steers across the torrid zone.

Away, away, - the North Star fades, the Southern Cross is high,

And myriad gems of brightest beam are sparkling in the sky.

The tropic winds are left behind - she nears the Cape of Storms

Where awful Tempest sits enthroned in wild and dread alarms.

Where Ocean in his fury heaves aloft his foaming crest,

And dashes o’er the helpless ship that rides upon his breast.”

Christine: Wow, that is Battye Historian, Dr Kate Gregory reading the poetry of J.B. O’Reilly if you’ve just tuned in.

History Repeated. Incredible!

Dr KG: Yes, absolutely. And I think the exciting thing about this book of poems is that there are 19 poems in here and there’s only four that were published later on.

So, this is kind of a lost archive of poetry in some respects and…so the great majority of them have never been published. Some of them were written into the ship’s newsletter called The Wild Goose.

Christine: Ok. Tell us about The Wild Goose.

Dr KG: Yes, so on the Hougoumont…and this was…this happened with some convict ships reasonably frequently. The prisoners on board would create a ship’s newsletter that would be all about…it was kind of to keep the…

Christine: Moral up…

Dr KG: Yes, yes, keep moral up, keep them going and entertain them and then it would be read aloud to all of the prisoners every week. So, it was a weekly newsletter and it was kind of songs and poems and stories and anecdotes of goings-on in the ship, you know catching of a shark or any deaths were recorded as well and so they’re a tremendous source and we know that John Boyle O’Reilly did produce about…I think there were about six or so poems that were actually written up into The Wild Goose so he composed them and wrote them up into The Wild Goose.

Now that ship’s newsletter is now held…the originals…seven editions are held by the Mitchell Library at the State Library of New South Wales and they’re accessible online and able to be viewed if people are interested. As is our book of poems. It has all been fully digitised and on the State Library catalogue. So, people can actually delve into it and his handwriting is quite easy to read (John Boyle O’Reilly’s handwriting). He was a very well-educated person as many of the Fenians were. They…and that’s why he was assigned the clerical duties so…

Christine: In the library.

Dr KG: Yes, in the library. Even when he went to Bunbury…when he was sent to Bunbury, he wasn’t building the roads as the rest of the work party were, he was actually on clerical duties. He was delivering the weekly reports to the convict depot in Bunbury and as a consequence he had access to the Bunbury community and he was charismatic and charming and he endeared himself to people. There was also a large Irish Catholic community around Bunbury and he befriended a number of them and that or…so people like Jim McGuire, he was a figure who was very involved in the eventual escape…organising the escape as was Father Patrick McCabe. So, yes, it’s a fascinating story and there’s a lot of folklore around John Boyle O’Reilly and there’s a story that people might be familiar with which hints at his poetic side and this is that the road building party…I think it was the Vasse Road…

Christine: Vasse Highway?

Dr KG: Yes, Vasse Highway or Old Coast Road, I’m not quite sure.

Christine: Ok.

Dr KG: But as they were building this, they came across this majestic tuart tree, beautiful big tuart tree, and John Boyle O’Reilly stopped the building of the road and said, “We must not knock down this tree” and prevented it and apparently that tree, now it’s not standing but he stopped the road. So apparently there’s a kink in the road that’s where this tree once stood.

Christine: [Gasp] Who has seen the kink in the road? I bet this has been annoying someone out there [laughs] for God knows how long. Ok, so either Vasse Highway or Old Coast Road.

Dr KG: I’m not sure which one, yes [laughs]. Someone definitely knows.

Christine: If there’s a kink in this road, do not stop and get run over but send me a photo when you can.

0437 922 720

That is so interesting. And there’s an event that you want to tell everyone about.

Dr KG: Yes, so I’ve been researching this book of poems and it’s just been fantastic because we’ve got…I’m giving a lecture and so I invite people to come along. It’s The Wild Goose lecture put on by the Fenians Fremantle and Freedom Association and it’s at the WA Maritime Museum on Sunday 16 October at 3pm and it’s an Eventbrite ticketed event so people can log onto Eventbrite and search for either my name or for The Wild Goose lecture and that will come up and you can book tickets and they’re selling fast so I encourage people to log on and basically, what I do…it’s just been a tremendous opportunity to get some new research into this book of poems because it arrived at the State Library in 1989 and look, the archival story is fascinating as well in terms of the authentication of this work as by John Boyle O’Reilly.

Christine: It would have been hard to do, right?

Dr KG: Yes, that’s right. So, needing to get handwriting samples from around the world, from archives held internationally and the really intriguing part to this story is the shorthand code that’s written on the front and the back cover of this book.

Christine: Why?

Dr KG: Well, so, you would think this might be a Fenian plot and something to do with his escape or you know why is there…and for years it was un-transcribed, and we didn’t know what this was.

Christine: Is that why your event is called Cracking the Code?

Dr KG: Yes [laughs]

Christine: Oh my God, I cracked the code [laughs].

Dr KG: [Laughs] So, I didn’t do it, I have to say. It was thanks to a wonderful State Library volunteer…long time State Library volunteer Gillian O’Mara and this is back in the early nineties and what happened was that this is quite by accident as well. We found in the State Library collections that we actually had a photocopy that some researchers had left at the Battye Library. This is in 1981, a long time ago. It wasn’t yet…it hadn’t yet been added to the collection and it was that when one of the State Library staff recalled seeing this and it was basically a photocopy of John Flood’s papers that were held in County Meath Library in Ireland.

Christine: So, did J.B. O’Reilly teach John Flood shorthand?

Dr KG: You’re…you’re onto it!

Christine: Yes, only because I was reading your notes about this. Ok. Ok.

Dr KG: Yes, that’s exactly right. So, it’s a stenography lesson that John Boyle O’Reilly had given John Flood on the Hougoumont ship and it was essentially…it was a code…I mean apart from the fact that it’s actually very difficult to transcribe stenography if you don’t have knowledge of [laughs].

So, Gillian O’Mara had some knowledge of the Pitman method of stenography and plus this legend…this code and was able to translate it and it turns out to be a love poem.

Christine: Oh, really? For who?

Dr KG: I don’t want to give too much away. I want people to come to the lecture [laughs].

Christine: Oh, fair enough. Wow! My goodness. This has been so interesting. I can’t believe that J.B. O’Reilly was also a poet. There are 19 poems and now I want to know what they’re all about.

So, if people want to go and access this collection online.

Dr KG: Yes, so come to the State Library website, and you can search the catalogue ‘J.B. O’Reilly poems’ and it will come up and you can actually have a look at the digitised artefact and if people want to come to the lecture then they can log on to Eventbrite and search for my name or for ‘John Boyle O’Reilly’ or for ‘Wild Goose lecture’ and it will come up. It’s a ticketed event so yes get onto it.

Christine: Oh, it’s going to be great. Honestly, thank you so much for sharing this. I love it when you come in. I learn so much and then I go home and tell Ian. He’s very tired, but this is very interesting too.

Kate, thank you for coming in.

We’ll speak to you again soon.

Dr KG: Thanks Christine.


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