Finding women in the archives

Late last year I attended a public lecture by Dr Noeline Kyle, an Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney, who has been working with and supporting family historians for many years. Dr Kyle discussed her recently published book Finding Florence, Maude, Matilda, Rose: Researching and writing women into family history. This is an update of her 1986 book We Should’ve Listened to Grandma. The lecture was directed at the family historian, so there was plenty of practical advice—which gave me lots to think about in researching my own family history, but also with my PhD project in mind.

My great great grandparents. Source: Judy Deane,

Finding Florence is essentially a guide to finding women in the archives, with a focus on the women who didn’t make newspaper headlines. The book contains long lists of public records to search for traces of women in the past, such as educational archives, and government record-keepers for women who might have worked in the ‘female’ professions of teaching, healthcare and social welfare.

I was particularly interested in Dr Kyle’s discussion of what she calls a “circle strategy.” As women can be largely absent from the archival record, she suggested investigating the biographies of close siblings, parents, other relatives such as cousins, and friends, neighbours and work colleagues. This may be a laborious task, but as Dr Kyle said, our ancestors often lived in close proximity to extended family and community members—so newspaper obituaries (for example) for neighbours and relatives  might yield a nugget of information about a woman we know little else about. So too, the records of primary schools, community and religious organisations. The book would be of great use to researchers in Australia, as well as the UK and Ireland, as Dr Kyle has experience of researching in archives for all of these locations.

I went to the lecture with a friend who’s done extensive research into her own family tree, far more than I have. The budding historian in me was thrilled to hear her say that Dr Kyle’s lecture had made her realise why she’s found it so much harder to gain a clear picture of her female ancestors, than for the men in her family tree. Students of history will be familiar with the project of social history to raise marginalised groups (whether on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity, ability etc) from obscurity. Whether consciously or not, non-academic, hobbyist family historians seeking to elucidate the lives of their female ancestors, are chipping away at the obscurity that many women have suffered at the hands of official histories, and archival practices of the past. Just another reason why family history is such an admirable pursuit!

Noeline Kyle, Finding Florence, Maude, Matilda, Rose: Researching and writing women into family history. Published by Unlock the Past, 2014.


Lego Acropolis. (c) Richard McLaren

As a regular museum-goer in Sydney, usually with a small child in tow, I’ve been well-aware of the appearance of Lego in museums over the past couple of years. I believe the University of Sydney’s Nicholson Museum set the trend, with their Lego Colosseum display back in 2012. Next was Lego Acropolis, which the Nicholson recently donated to the Acropolis Museum in Athens, where it is now on display.  The current Lego model on display is Pompeii.  All three models are the work of Ryan McNaught, a Sydney-based Lego certified professional. The Acropolis, Colosseum and Pompeii all incorporate elements of the sites in the past, as well as how they appear today. So the current model shows Pompeii as it was at its moment of destruction in 79AD,  as well as when it was rediscovered in the 18th Century, and as it is today. The Nicholson proudly declares its commitment to Kids in Museums. And the Lego models really do provide an accessible entry point into ancient history for young children (and are an entertaining display for adults too). In conjunction with the Nicholson’s small but beautifully displayed collection of art and artefacts from the period, ancient Greece and Rome have really come to life. We’ve also recently been to Sydney Living Museum’s Towers of Tomorrow exhibition, which has been extended due to popular demand. The exhibition is testament to the architecture and design elements of sky-scrapers around the world, as well as a fun way to spark creativity—and awe—in children and adults alike. As well as the display, there are banks of tables with piles and piles of lego bricks. Entry to the exhibition is for a set time (I think about 45 minutes), which means that after looking at the display, visitors can pull up a stool and build their own lego creations, before the session ends and the next group of visitors enters. To be honest, I didn’t really understand the connection between Sydney’s history (which is the theme of the Museum), and Lego skyscrapers, but I presume the exhibition has managed to draw in some first-time visitors to the museum. It’s certainly a fun way to spend an hour with a Lego-mad child. I did learn something about big buildings too!Towers of Tomorrow SLM IMG_2509

Lego in Museums

Seeking my Stowaway

This is another post to document my research journey with my great-great-grandfather William Williamson. This week’s research has presented me with two stumbling blocks, which I’m yet to resolve, but they’ve also exposed significant gaps in the academic literature. So if anyone out there is looking for juicy research topics, keep reading!

Stumbling block No.1 must be a familiar one to genealogists—the stowaway. The story which has been passed down through my family is that William stowed away on the Norfolk, thinking it was bound for America. It turns out the ship travelled to Australia, where he arrived in Melbourne in 1862.  The steamship Norfolk travelled from London to Melbourne twice in 1862, but William does not appear on the passenger list for either journey. I wonder whether if he really did stow away on the Norfolk, would he have been converted to crew once discovered? The Public Record Office of Victoria keeps hard copies of the Mercantile Marine Office Release Books. After each voyage the discharge and release of the crew was recorded—the master and crew signed to release the ship owner from any future claims for wages etc in relation to the voyage. I’d be interested to know whether stowaways appeared on these documents.

And what happened to stowaways on arrival in Victoria? He could have been very young, either 10 or 15—if he was 10, would charities have taken any interest in his life? Would this be recorded anywhere? This relates to stumbling block No.2— I cannot establish exactly how old William was when he arrived in Victoria. Some family researchers place his birthdate at 1847, and some at 1852. Both are plausible on the basis of birth and census records. But if he was born in 1852, he would have been only 10 when he stowed away. If the 1852 birthdate belongs to my ancestor, then it’s likely he was the 9 year old “ragged scholar” at the All Saints Charity School in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, recorded on the 1861 census.  From my preliminary reading on ragged schools, the students tended to ‘graduate’ at about 10 years of age, so he would have been let loose in 1862… did he then journey down to Plymouth alone, to the Plymouth Export Depot to get on a boat?

Some exciting historical questions are starting to emerge as I research William’s life. My list of areas to investigate is rapidly expanding—a quick search has revealed that very little has been written about stowaways, or the Ragged Schools movement in England. Life at the heaving Plymouth Export Depot also sounds fascinating, and understudied. The possibility that William arrived in Melbourne in 1862 as a 10 year old also reminded me of a fascinating seminar I attended at Macqurie Uni this year with Simon Sleight about young people and urban life in Melbourne (see his book: Young People and the Shaping of Public Space in Melbourne, 1870—1914 (Farnham & Burlington: Ashgate, 2013).

My immediate task is to try to pin down William’s timeline, but I would love to hear from anyone who has met similar challenges in their family or academic research, or with an interest in Ragged Schools, Plymouth in the 1860s, or stowaways.


Reading for fun again

Since submitting my thesis in mid-October, I’ve slowly unwound with lots of walking, swimming, talking, reading and a little bit of TV watching (Homeland, series 4, only so-so). All that, plus my usual stay-at-home Mum commitments. I have a long list of books to read, but the two stand-outs have been The Wife Drought, by Annabel Crabb, and Walking Free, by Munjed al Muderis. I haven’t branched out into fiction yet!

The Wife Drought was reviewed masterfully for The Monthly by Anne Manne:  Writing in her usual engaging, insightful style, Crabb could have been writing about myself and many of my friends. She covered so many of our experiences that it was by turns depressing, hilarious and liberating. She argues that things need to change not just for women but for men. In the realm of those who desire both a career and a family, men are missing out just as much as women are.  We also need to lose the guilt! Read the book for the laughs, but also for the suggestions about how as a society, we might start to influence the way life for our children looks.

Al Muderis’ book was deeply absorbing. It is the biography of an Iraqi-Australian, now a world-leading orthopaedic surgeon, specialising in osseointegration (bionic people, essentially: The book is written in a conversational style, tracing Al Muderis’ journey from war-torn Iraq in 1999 to Australia, as a ‘boat person,’ or asylum seeker. I was fascinated by the depiction of his comfortable, secular upbringing in the leafy, cosmopolitan city of Baghdad of the 1970s and 80s. His flight from Iraq began when he refused to follow Saddam’s orders to mutilate army deserters. The story of his journey to Australia is eye-opening, and possibly provides more detail about the operations of the so-called people smugglers than is known to date. Al Muderis is scathing of many of his fellow-refugees, and reminds us of the shades of grey which emerge from war-zones, but also the potential which immigrants bring.  I must mention the wonderful cameo appearance in the book of Magistrate Antoine Bloeman, a lively figure in my own childhood. Al Muderis was left bemused by his court appearance before Bloeman, but Bloeman has done many great things in his time – he would be a worthy subject of a biography or memoir of his own! To find out more, read the book. It’s a quick, but thoroughly illuminating read that will stay with you.

Al Muderis recently spoke to Margaret Throsby on the ABC in Australia: the podcast is available here:

Criminal Pasts: Family History

Brickey Gaol

I’ve spent most of this week trying to trace the trail left by my Great Great Grandfather on the legal record of 1870s Victoria. In the past, I’ve considered this to be a family history project, but I’m beginning to realise it is also (or instead?) a biographical project—the protagonist just happens to be an ancestor of mine, who has been of interest to many people throughout my extended family. I’ve been researching his life off and on for the past couple of years, but with some more solid research experience behind me, I feel better equipped to know where to look for information, and to understand what I find.

William Williamson, alias Brickey, appears in most of the books about the Kelly Outbreak in North-Eastern Victoria. (note – I’ve been selective about what I’ve read, there are way too many Ned Kelly books out there!) He was implicated in the events of the evening in April 1878 when Ned Kelly allegedly shot Constable Fitzpatrick in the wrist. Brickey was arrested the following day, along with Ned Kelly’s mother and brother-in-law. They were convicted of aiding and abetting the attempted murder of Fitzpatrick. The men were sentenced to 6 years with hard labour; Mrs Kelly got 3. The sentences were considered severe, and had no small part to play in Ned’s anger with the authorities. The presiding judge at the Beechworth Assizes was Judge Redmond Barry, who was to sentence Ned to death a few years later.

I’ve been keen to find the documentary evidence for Brickey’s criminal record. Family stories abound about how and why he was involved. Understandably, the books which have covered the Fitzpatrick affair have focused on Ned and his mother’s role, with Brickey mentioned only as an aside. My aim is to uncover as much of the “truth” as I can about Brickey’s involvement, so that I can consider it in the context of his long and otherwise peaceful life. I was surprised and gratified then, when I opened the (huge) book of the Minutes of Evidence taken in the 1881 Royal Commission into the Police Force of Victoria, to find that the very first witness—the Chief Commissioner of Police—discussed Brickey’s role in detail from the outset.  Brickey was not just a neighbour, he was very well-acquainted with the Kellys and their associates.

As well as wondering how well he knew the Kellys, I’ve also wondered how involved Brickey was in the general lawlessness of the North-Eastern region in the 1870s. His prison record—which I managed to download from the PROV— confirms (as I suspected) that he was known to the police, and had already spent time in Beechworth Gaol before the Constable Fitzpatrick affair. Finding the prison records was surprisingly easy—I’m sure last time I looked (a couple of years ago)—I’d decided that I’d need to go to Melbourne to see a hard-copy file. I wanted to know whether Brickey was in gaol at the same time as Ned, Dan or Jim Kelly, or their various uncles and other associates, to confirm my hunch that they had all had lots of time together. They did have time inside together, in Beechworth and Pentridge.

The next task is to try to get hold of the court files for Brickey’s trials, as I don’t think the cases were formally reported. I’ve seen the prosecutor’s file, which suggests that the Fitzpatrick case was handled perfunctorily, but I’d like to find out more. I’m trying not to give away too much of the story here as I hope to write a biography of sorts. But any clues, questions, or suggestions for researching criminal activities of the 1870s would be most welcome.

The photograph above is from Brickey’s prison file, presumably taken when he first entered the system at 25 years of age.

Submitting my Thesis

Well, I’ve submitted my Masters thesis and am waiting on my markers’ verdict. I was pleased with how the thesis came together in the end, as was my supervisor, so my fingers are crossed for a good outcome.  The final title was ‘Celebrating the Battle of the Saintes: Imperial News in England and Ireland, 1782.’ I took the newspaper reporting of Britain’s victory over the French in April 1782 in les Saintes (in the Caribbean) as a case study to examine the impact of imperial news in London, and a second site of empire: Ireland. The case study also allowed me to look at the network which passed information from an outpost of empire to England and Ireland. I thoroughly enjoyed the primary research for this project. Most of my sources were digitised newspapers, although I did need to go to the National Library in Canberra to read the Dublin Evening Post on microfiche, which felt like a blast from the past, technologically speaking. During our family holiday in England I even managed to get to the British Library Manuscripts room—with my precious reader’s ticket in hand—to read a journal from one of the British ships at the Saintes, as well as the journal of John Mair, who watched the battle and its aftermath from his plantation on Dominica. I also visited the National Archives at Kew, and read some of the personal correspondence of Admiral Rodney, who commanded the British fleet at the Saintes—including a letter from Edmund Burke. A highlight for me was the moment I realised that the pencil markings I thought had been made by a selfish scholar on the original letters, were actually Rodney’s own markings! The experience of reading original documents in manuscript is one of the reasons I am determined to continue with historical research – whether as a PhD student or an independent researcher.

Feeling like a real grad student …learning about—and making—connections

I was fortunate enough to attend a masterclass last week hosted by Dr Penny Edmonds at the University of Tasmania, starring Dr Zoe Laidlaw from the University of London. Months ago I wrote out this quote from Dr Laidlaw’s article “Breaking Britannia’s Bounds?” to keep me on track with my thesis:

“…recent works influenced by ‘new imperial history’ range far beyond dissections of metropolitan society and culture, focusing on interactions between widely separated colonial sites, juxtaposing micro and macro, and questioning the relationship between the remarkable and the everyday…exchanges within and between colonies are just as likely to take centre stage as the metropolis.”

The theme of the class was ‘Networks of Empire and Transnational History.’ Given the centrality of networks and connections to my work, I happily did a one-day round trip from Sydney to Hobart for the class. As the convenors hinted to us at the outset, whilst I learnt a lot from each of them over the course of the day, it was interactions with fellow participants during breaks that fired my imagination the most. This underscores the importance of networking – something I never particularly enjoyed in my previous life as an investment banking compliance officer, but which I am beginning to fully appreciate in my current guise as a graduate student. Talking about my work and thoughts for research topics for my possible (fingers crossed!) PhD led to some really interesting suggestions as to how to frame my work and what kind of events and sources I might pursue. I hope I managed to spark ideas for others as much as they did for me!

I was pleased to discover that I wasn’t the most inexperienced budding historian at the class, having met an honours student from Victoria with a fantastic thesis topic. I was also rather delighted to find myself in about the middle of the age range – whether that’s because it is the older grad students who have the time/money/inclination to travel, or whether that really reflects the demographic of the history post-grad student, I’m not sure.

The day began with introductions, most of which I unfortunately missed (thanks Virgin Australia). Then Zoe gave us a short lecture which traced her own research journey as a PhD student, She highlighted the importance of spending time in the archive, as well as the often-serendipitous nature of historical scholarship. In relation to networks, and her own work on colonial and settler-networks, she noted how pervasive colonial networks were, how assiduously people pursued them, and how the use of a particular connection or network changed over time. She encouraged us to seek ways of disrupting the boundaries of empire in our work, and to de-centre London—one way this can be achieved is by focusing on individual lives, and rethinking biography as a tool for crossing boundaries. In encouraging us to be aware of the work of scholars in areas outside our own, she discussed the legions of connections in the past which had little to do with the metropole, or even the Empire.

The class then discussed the pre-set readings – in addition to “Breaking Britannia’s Bounds,” we discussed Tracey Banivanua Mar’s “Imperial literacy and indigenous rights,” and a chapter from Clare Anderson’s Subaltern Lives.  The class had a great discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of the methodologies adopted in these works. Banivanua Mar and Anderson’s work emphasised that in discussing the networks of those with little social capital in the empire, we should not be necessarily discouraged by the fact that we only know a little about some of the lives. The readings also demonstrated the fantastic work that can be achieved if a thoughtful balance is struck between individual lives and stories, and the broader themes they can illuminate.

Dr Kristyn Harman also talked us through the process of researching her fascinating PhD topic of indigenous convicts, and then how she converted it into a prize-winning book. The book is on top of my post-thesis reading list.

In sum, while networking may not be a comfortable experience for many people, making just a little effort to ask what others are working on, and then talking about your own work, can be hugely rewarding. Study in history can be such a solitary exercise that it is easy to forget how much we can learn from others.

Some useful references from the masterclass:

Clare Anderson, Subaltern Lives. Cambridge University Press, 2012. See also her current project:

Tracey Banivanua Mar, “Imperial literacy and indigenous rights: Tracing transoceanic circuits of a modern discourse,” Aboriginal History 37 (2013).

Zoe Laidlaw, “Breaking Britannia’s Bounds? Law, Settlers, and Space in Britain’s Imperial Historiography,” The Historical Journal 55 (2012). See also her other publications:

Kristyn Harman, Aboriginal Convicts: Australia, Khoisan, and Maori Exiles. UNSW Press, 2012.

John Boyle O’Reilly

I was honoured this week to receive the Irish Famine Memorial Prize at the annual gathering at Sydney’s beautiful Irish Famine Memorial at the Hyde Park Barracks. The prize is open to Macquarie University undergraduates for work on an Irish or Irish Australian topic, or on a global problem in the modern world. I received the prize for the biography of John Boyle O’Reilly I wrote last year, for the unit ‘Representing Lives: The Genre of Modern Biography’, taught by Dr Kate Fullagar.

A number of people at the Famine Memorial gathering approached me after the formalities to ask about O’Reilly’s life. In my (short!) acceptance speech, I said that it was an absolute pleasure researching O’Reilly’s life—he achieved so much, and the vibrancy of his personality and strength of his character shone through in all the sources I read. I’ve condensed my biography here, which I hope will give some idea of the adventures and achievements that comprised his tragically short life.

“He was a great storm out somewhere, a great sea pushing up against the shore”: Walt Whitman.[1]

Born 28 June 1844 in Dowth, County Meath, Ireland ~ Died 10 August 1890, in Boston, USA.

O'Reilly PicO'reilly Pic 2


After dark on the 18th of February 1869 John Boyle O’Reilly left his hut at the Vasse convict depot in Western Australia, and stole quietly into the bush. He had changed out of his convict-issue boots into freeman’s working boots and took a circuitous route through the bush, hoping to confuse the police trackers who were bound to follow him when his absence was discovered. It had been three months since he’d confided in a friend, Father McCabe, his desperate desire to escape. McCabe had discouraged O’Reilly from making his own attempt, but had promised to help. The priest soon enlisted the help of a local farmer, James Maguire, to help O’Reilly’s escape. In December, on learning that two American whalers would soon drop anchor in Geographe Bay, Maguire assured O’Reilly: “You’ll be a free man in February.”[2]

The Hougoumont

O’Reilly had arrived in Western Australia a year earlier, aboard the Hougoumont, Britain’s last ship to transport convicts to the Australian colonies. He was one of 62 Irish political prisoners on board, most were convicted for their involvement in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Whilst only a young man, O’Reilly had been influential as the ‘Centre’ for the IRB in his cavalry regiment—he swore in eighty men from the regiment in a four-month period. John Devoy described him as “the most remarkable man among the Fenians in the British army…by long odds.[3] After serving solitary confinement and hard labour in English gaols (one of which he almost escaped from), O’Reilly was elated at the prospect of transportation, “Australia! The ship! Another chance for the old dream (of Liberty).” He was also delighted to be reunited on board the Hougoumont with men he had not seen since his imprisonment; “we were with our friends—our brothers!”

As political prisoners, the Fenians were separated from the criminal convicts, and entertained themselves with nightly concerts of stories, songs and poetry.[4] O’Reilly played a key role in these diversions, and also in the production of a handwritten newspaper The Wild Goose. Many of the poems later published in O’Reilly’s anthologies were first penned for The Wild Goose; in fact the paper was so popular that an extra copy of the final edition was carefully written out for the Hougoumont’s captain and mates and presented to them just before they reached Fremantle![5]

Once in Australia, the reality of O’Reilly’s situation hit home. The Fenians were split up, depriving him of the comradeship which had sustained him on the voyage. He was a broken man, and tried to take his own life in December 1868, as he waited for word from Father McCabe. Farmer Maguire’s daughter Annie recalled years later her father talking about “how poor Boyle cried and cried in desperation for help.”[6]

The Gazelle

Back to that warm night in February 1869. O’Reilly trudged three hours through the bush, then laid low, waiting. He soon heard the sound of approaching horses, followed by someone whistling the tune of an Irish song—Patrick’s Day. With Maguire and another man, O’Reilly rode for several hours, then walked several more until they reached the coast. It was well after midnight when they waded knee-deep through mud to reach a rowing boat manned by Maguire’s cousins. The men rowed until sunrise, making it across Geographe Bay towards their meeting point with the whaling ship, the Vigilant. They ran the rowboat high up on the beach, to await the rendezvous. No food or water had been provisioned. O’Reilly had not eaten or drunk anything for over twenty-four hours.

The attempt to rendezvous with the Vigilant was a disaster. The men rowed two hours to meet her out in the bay, but to their bitter disappointment she changed her course within two miles of them. They hailed her but to no avail; the whaler passed on. The group rowed back to shore, but O’Reilly’s attempted again later that night to meet the Vigilant on his own, again without success. What happened over the next few days is somewhat uncertain—in O’Reilly’s version, he was left to fend for himself in the sand dunes and bush for a number of days while Maguire came up with a new plan. Maguire’s daughter Annie Stokes remembered the story differently, however—she remembers O’Reilly hiding at the Maguires’ home for a fortnight after the failure to board the Vigilant.[7]

 In any case, McCabe managed to convince the Captain of another whaler, the Gazelle, to take O’Reilly on board. Captain Gifford welcomed O’Reilly warmly and accommodated him in his cabin. As the whaler departed, Maguire stood up and cried: “God bless you; don’t forget us, and don’t mention our names till you know it’s all over.”  When O’Reilly finally arrived in Philadelphia on 23 November 1869, he immediately presented himself at the District Court to file for American citizenship. He was twenty-five years of age.

This is where O’Reilly’s Australian story ends, almost. He was a key figure in planning and funding the 1876 ‘Catalpa Rescue’ in which six Fenian convicts escaped from Fremantle Jail in Western Australia—rescued by the American whaler Catalpa. The Rescue was a highly organized expedition, in contrast to O’Reilly’s own escape. These two episodes, almost unique in Australia’s convict history, epitomize the determination and solidarity of the Fenians, who refused to give up on any of their number. The transportation of 62 of them to Western Australia in 1867 was part of a concerted effort on the part of Britain to drive into exile this threat to her hold over Ireland. O’Reilly’s escape and the Catalpa Rescue serve as a reminder that the Australian colonies played host to the ongoing political tensions in their homeland.

The Pilot

After becoming an American, O’Reilly set about making something of himself. He was feted by the Fenians in America and by politicians keen for the Irish American vote, but ultimately he opted to keep out of what he called “these Irish or American political “rings”.[8] He secured a job on the Boston Pilot, America’s leading Irish Catholic newspaper. He covered the failed Fenian attempts to invade Canada, and the 1870 Orange Riots in New York, during which several men were killed and many more injured in clashes between Irish Catholics and Protestants. His fury in new York was evident:

“Is this not the cause for deep humiliation? Earnest men have labored for years to remove that bitter old taunt of our enemies—“You cannot unite.” … We prate and boast of our “national will”! What are we today in the eyes of Americans? Aliens from a petty island in the Atlantic… Why must we carry, wherever we go, those accursed and contemptible island feuds?[9]

O’Reilly soon rose to be Editor of the Pilot, and formally left the Fenians around the same time. Although he disapproved of organised activism, he wrote to his friend John Devoy that he may have been “a sceptic in all your movements; but I’m as ready as any one of you to do anything for the old cause.”[10]

Literary Life & Humanity’s Friend

As well as establishing himself on the speaking circuit and in the Pilot, O’Reilly worked hard in America to pursue his other great passion—writing. He was prolific—he published four anthologies of poetry, a serialized novel,  a manual on the merits of his favorite physical pastimes (canoeing and boxing), and a host of journal articles, lectures and public speeches. He soon established a network of literary friends, many of whom went on to occupy senior positions in newspapers and the arts around America. O’Reilly’s ability to gather people around him, and to inspire loyalty and affection, was a quality which he had carried with him all his life.

O’Reilly became Boston’s unofficial poet laureate, busy dedicating monuments and memorials, and publicly reading his poetry. Daniel Tobin has described O’Reilly as the preeminent Irish American literary figure of his time—describing his poetry as “perhaps the last, misbegotten heir of an older Irish bardic tradition.”[11] This tradition is anchored in a strong sense of social vocation and a public tone, and eschews the individual for the broader narrative. O’Reilly’s personal story is not explicitly documented in his poetry. Rather than dwell on his own rather exceptional story of exile, O’Reilly wrote poetry in a style with which his Irish American readers were familiar, and told stories to which they could all relate.

 He also used his poetry to address many of the same issues that he raised in the Pilot. During the 1880s he gained a reputation as “humanity’s friend,”[12] with a particular interest in the plight of the African American. He used his public profile to persistently criticise American racism towards African Americans. O’Reilly concluded his poem about the eighteenth century slave Crispus Attucks with the words, “God made mankind to be one in blood, as one in spirit and thought.”[13] He worked closely with high profile advocates of abolition such as Wendell Phillips and Thomas Higginson. In this, he worked against a wider tradition within the Irish community in America,[14] but followed in the footsteps of Daniel O’Connell, who had famously challenged Ireland to oppose slavery, and had campaigned for abolition in America.

 At the public memorial service after his death, Edwin G. Walker, an African American man, said this of O’Reilly,

“I come here tonight because John Boyle O’Reilly was the friend of my race …With his pen, O’Reilly sent through the columns of a newspaper…words in our behalf that were Christian, and anathemas that were just. Not only that, but he went on to the platform, and in bold and defiant language he denounced the murderers of our people… in the midst of all the gloom we could     hear Mr. O’Reilly declaring his determination to stand by the colored American in all contests where his rights were at stake.”[15]


O’Reilly was forty-six years old and at the height of his career when he died suddenly in the early hours of 10 August 1890, after accidentally overdosing on his wife’s medication. He suffered from insomnia, and the assumption is that instead of taking his own mediation, he took his invalid wife’s medication instead. A funeral mass was held on August 12. The church, sidewalks and adjacent streets thronged with a multitude of mourners, and afterwards it took more than an hour for the mourners to file past his coffin.

It is easy to characterise O’Reilly as remarkable. He endured tremendous experiences, achieved great fame, and gathered around him many friends and admirers. He touched the lives of countless individuals with his personal charity and his public advocacy. His lawyer recounted how O’Reilly “could not hear a tale of woe or misfortune that he did not set himself about rectifying or relieving.”[16] Yet he was no radical. The Pilot remained popular throughout his tenure; thus while the views he expressed on issues such as the Fenians, and civil rights may have been challenging for his readers, nonetheless he struck a chord. His public consumed his poems and his newspaper columns, they attended his speeches. In this way, he mingled fiction and poetry with commentary, newspaper reports with narrative, to envision the possibilities for the Irish in America, how they could at once hold onto their homeland, whilst engaging with America and all its possibilities. He embodied the ideal of what it was to be Irish American in the nineteenth century. This is his lasting legacy.


[1] Walt Whitman, in Gary Schmidgall, ed. Intimate with Walt: Selections from Whitman’s Conversations with Horace Traubel 1888-1892, The Iowa Whitman Series (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001).

[2] The first account of O’Reilly’s escape was written by Alexander Young in the Philadelphia Times, 25 June 1881. The article is extracted in full in James Jeffrey Roche, Life of John Boyle O’Reilly, Together with His Complete Poems and Speeches, Edited by Mrs. John Boyle O’Reilly. (New York: Cassell Publishing Company, 1891).

[3] Devoy, Recollections of an Irish Rebel (a Photolithographic Facsimile of the First Edition, Unabridged)., pp.155-156.

[4] Conor Johnston, “Review of Fenian Life on the Convict Ship Hougoumont: Denis B. Cashman on Board the Hougoumont 1867-1868, by Cw Sullivan,” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies, Irish Issue 8, no. 1 (2002)., p.271.

[5] Walter McGrath, “Convict Ship Newspaper, the Wild Goose, Re-Discovered,” Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 74(1969)., pp.23-24.

[6] Martin Carroll, “The Mark of Boyle O’reilly’s Escape,” The West Australian, 20 December 1952.

[7] Carroll, “The Mark of Boyle O’reilly’s Escape.”

[8] Letter O’Reilly to Devoy, 26 May 1871 in William O’Brien and Desmond Ryan, eds., Devoy’s Postbag 1871-1928, 2 vols., vol. 1, 1870-1880 (Dublin: CJ Fallon, 1948).

[9] The Pilot, 23 July 1870, in Roche, Life of John Boyle O’Reilly.

[10] Letter O’Reilly to Devoy, Thursday, 1871.

[11] Daniel Tobin, Awake in America: On Irish American Poetry (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011).

[12] “Death of John Boyle O’Reilly”, in A Memorial of John Boyle O’reilly from the City of Boston.

[13] “Crispus Attucks”, printed in full in Roche, Life of John Boyle O’Reilly.

[14] Kenneally, From the Earth, a Cry., pp.165-166.

[15] A Memorial of John Boyle O’Reilly from the City of Boston.

[16] “Remarks of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler”, in A Memorial of John Boyle O’Reilly from the City of Boston.

A mystery solved – Photographs from the Australia Station

Originally posted on Australian National Maritime Museum:

A Pacific island scene from a photograph album of images by a Royal Navy officer on the Australia Station around 1910 A Pacific island scene from a photograph album of images by a Royal Navy officer on the Australia Station around 1910

Jennifer McLaren is a Masters of Research student at Macquarie University who has been working as a museum volunteer assisting with research for the upcoming Test of War – Royal Australian Navy in WWI exhibition. Here she recounts a search to find the people behind a set of early 20th century photograph albums in the museum’s library collection.

The upcoming Test of War exhibition will showcase some photographs from the personal collection of a British Royal Navy officer posted to the Australia Station in the years before World War I. When the Australian National Maritime Museum Vaughan Evans Library acquired the photograph albums from an antique bookseller, they came with no record as to who had owned them or taken the photographs – their origin was a mystery.

View original 662 more words