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In this letter dated 2 November 1886, John Boyle O'Reilly writes to Congressman—and fellow poet—John D. Long, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts. Long had publicly intimated that O'Reilly's loyalty to the Democratic Party might be in question. O'Reilly writes to set the record straight about his politics, while reaffirming his personal loyalty to Long.
In the heat of the 1886 election campaign in Massachusetts, Congressman John D. Long and John Boyle O'Reilly, the editor of the [Boston] Pilot—the most important Irish American newspaper then published in the United States—engaged in a polite, but pointed, public dispute about the true nature of O'Reilly's political beliefs and his loyalty to the Democratic Party. In October, Republican Congressman Long spoke in Lynn, Massachusetts, in support of the candidacy of Henry Cabot Lodge for a seat in Congress. Long said of the "brave, true, conscientious Irishman"--and staunch Democratic ally--O'Reilly, "you will find that those are not his true sentiments; that he is with us and would vote for that which would protect the honor of the country and the honor of our flag." Long was referring to O'Reilly's public criticism of the extremely pro-British policies of Secretary of State Thomas F. Bayard—a stance that put him at odds with the (Democratic) Cleveland administration.
O'Reilly found it necessary to reply in the Pilot that he was not secretly in sympathy with the Republican Party and that "it was taking a liberty that surprised us from such a source." He went on to catalog the sins of commission and omission of the Republicans in Massachusetts—noting that the party had been "attentive to Irish-American views only since it lost power, and wanted to regain it."
Almost immediately, O'Reilly followed up his public criticism of Long with the personal letter displayed here in which he wrote:
Some busybody sent The Pilot to you—not I. I did not do so because I understood your remark, just as you explain it; but the general Democrat might misunderstand, & so I made the correction in the paper. If there be one word of offence to you, I shall as publicly take it back. Pity it is that our constant excitements lead men into hasty words & hastier replies.
O'Reilly went on to write of a more hopeful future:
I believe we are near the end of a certain spirit which has Kept men & their minds from mingling in a healthy way: the Irish-American is not shut out quite so much, in the mind of his Anglo-American fellow-citizen, from the "American" Class.
Ever the optimist, O'Reilly did not live long enough to see Boston's Irish-American politicians, as they gained complete control of city government, move further away from the liberal accommodation he prophesied and become more "militant and triumphant" in outlook.
John Boyle O'Reilly was born in 1844 in County Meath, Ireland, the son of William David O'Reilly, a schoolmaster, and Eliza Boyle. He attended his father's school and apprenticed as a typesetter before beginning a newspaper career as a compositor and reporter in Ireland and England. Caught up in the Fenian movement for Irish independence, he returned to Ireland and enlisted in the 10th Hussars—the Prince of Wales's regiment—to learn the skills necessary for the revolutionary cause. In 1866, he was betrayed, arrested, convicted of mutiny, and condemned to death. His sentence was commuted to 20 years' penal servitude and he was transported to Western Australia. In 1869, with the aid of American whalers, he escaped from Australia and began a long, secret journey to the United States, finally arriving in Boston in January 1870.
Although O'Reilly had brief experience working on newspapers—he even helped publish a journal on the convict ship transporting him to Australia—he may have had the most unlikely beginnings of a successful literary career ever recorded: within a decade of his arrival in Boston, and in the face of the deep-rooted hostility faced by Irish Catholic immigrants, the would-be revolutionary and escaped convict had become a newspaper writer, editor, celebrated poet and public speaker, civil rights advocate, and novelist. Along the way, he became the co-publisher with the archbishop of Boston, John J. Williams, of the Pilot (today an official publication of the Archdiocese of Boston). The motto of the Pilot could have been O'Reilly's own: "Be just and fear not, let all the ends thou aims't at be God's, thy country's, and truth's."
After reporting on the failed Fenian invasion of Canada in 1870, O'Reilly, although he remained devoted to the cause of Irish self-determination, turned away from revolutionary violence. Increasingly, he wrote and spoke about the importance of Americanization: "What are we today in the eyes of Americans? . . . Aliens from a petty island in the Atlantic, boasting of our patriotism and fraternity, and showing at the same moment that deadly hatred that rankles against our brethren and fellow countrymen." His advocacy of civil rights extended beyond the Irish community. He spoke on behalf of African Americans and Native Americans, and dedicated his novel set in a penal colony in Western Australia, Moondyne, to "all who are in prison, for whatever cause." At the same time, O'Reilly also was eminently "clubbable"—a silver-tongued poet who moved easily within Boston's literary and reform establishment.
John Davis Long, the recipient of John Boyle O'Reilly's letter, had been born in Bucksfield, Maine, in 1838, the son of Zadoc—a storekeeper—and Julia Davis Long. After graduating from Harvard College in 1857 and teaching school in Westford, Massachusetts, he attended Harvard Law School and launched his legal career just as the Civil War began. Long first ran for public office in 1871 as an Independent Republican—a supporter of Horace Greeley—but came to wider public attention when he was elected speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1876, and then lieutenant governor in 1879. He served three single-year terms as governor of Massachusetts (1880-1882) and then was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1882, where he was serving when he received this letter from O'Reilly in 1886. A moderate reformer, Long was (like his correspondent) a popular public speaker and published poet, although his best-known work was a blank verse translation of the Aeneid.
A year after writing to Long, O'Reilly continued his argument in favor of accommodation in politics at the 150th anniversary of Boston's Charitable Irish Society where he memorably recited a poem written for the occasion, "Exile of the Gael," prefaced by the admonition to his audience, "we can do Ireland more good by our Americanism than by our Irishism."
In August 1889, at the invitation of John D. Long, who was the president of the Pilgrim Society, O'Reilly read a poem at the dedication of the National Monument to the Forefathers in Plymouth. In a playful introduction for O'Reilly, Long described him as a "genuine New England Pilgrim" from a small island out at sea, and—more seriously, in the spirit of the occasion—he was "at one with the genius of the Pilgrim landing and of the civil and religious liberty of which it was a token."
John Boyle O'Reilly died the following year. Many Irish stories have sad endings, but O'Reilly's death also is slightly mysterious. Although he was an avid physical fitness enthusiast—a boxer, fencer, and "canoeist"—and maintained a frenetic speaking schedule, he suffered from insomnia and apparently gave himself an accidental overdose of his invalid wife's medication. The city of Boston—all Irish men and women in America—mourned, but there also was anguish in Boston's African American community for O'Reilly was recognized as a champion of black civil rights. Of the political and literary figures and reformers who spoke at a ceremony in O'Reilly's honor in Boston, only Thomas Wentworth Higginson could find him not perfect in every way: O'Reilly had not supported woman suffrage, a cause dear to Higginson—and to John D. Long.
In 1889, Long retired from politics and returned to his private law practice, but he was to have a surprising second act on the public stage: in 1897, the new Republican president William McKinley, a colleague from Long's time in Congress, offered him a cabinet post. Although he had no maritime training or experience, Long served credibly as secretary of the navy during the Spanish American War and continued in office when his former assistant, Theodore Roosevelt, became president. Long retired to private life for a second time in 1902 and died in 1915.
Boston quickly erected a monument to John Boyle O'Reilly that stands just outside the doors of the Massachusetts Historical Society at the corner of Boylston Street and the Fens, the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park which winds through the Back Bay of Boston. Erected in 1896, sculptor Daniel Chester French's memorial is made up of a bronze bust of O'Reilly facing in one direction, bearing the inscription: "John Boyle O'Reilly, 1844-1890, Poet, Patriot, Orator," and, facing in the opposite direction, the personification of "Poetry and Patriotism," who "give of their laurel and oak from which Erin weaves a wreath for her heroes."
John Boyle O'Reilly's 1886 letter to John D. Long, together with publications, photographs, and memorabilia that document his life, is currently on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society as part of the Society's exhibition, The Irish Atlantic: A Story of Famine, Migration, & Opportunity. The exhibition explores the history of the Irish in Boston from the 1847 voyage of Robert Bennet Forbes to bring famine relief supplies to Ireland, through the mass migration of Irish immigrants to Boston that followed, and the growth of the Irish community and institutions in Boston during the last decades of the 19th century. The Irish Atlantic, co-sponsored by the MHS and the Forbes House Museum in Milton, Massachusetts, will continue through 22 September 2017. The exhibition is open to the public without charge, Monday through Saturday, 10 AM to 4 PM.
Boston City Council. A Memorial to John Boyle O'Reilly from the City of Boston. Boston: Boston City Council, 1890.
Evans, Anthony G. Fanatic Heart: A Life of John Boyle O'Reilly, 1844-1890. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999.
"John Davis Long. An Interesting Hingham Gentleman at Home." Boston Daily Globe, Nov. 26, 1886, p. 4.
A revealing color piece about "Smiling John" Long.
Long, John D. John Davis Long Papers, 1820-1943. Massachusetts Historical Society.
A finding aid to the massive collection of Long manuscripts at the MHS is available online.
Extracts of Long's extensive journal and public papers have been published several times including:
Long, Margaret, ed. The Journal of John D. Long. Rindge, New Hampshire: Richard R. Smith Publisher, Inc., 1956.
O'Connor, Thomas H. The Boston Irish: A Political History. Old Saybrook, Connecticut: Konecky & Konecky, 1995.
Roche, James Jeffrey. Life of John Boyle O'Reilly together with his Complete Poems and Speeches. New York: Cassell Publishing Company, 1891.
Roche reprints the public remarks of Long and O'Reilly, but he did not have access to O'Reilly's private letter to Long.
Taylor, P. A. M. "A Politician's Life: The Papers of John D. Long," Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Volume 101. Boston: Published by the Society, 1990, 71-95.
An analytical description of the contents of Long's extensive journal and manuscripts.