John Boyle O'Reilly, considered one of Boston’s true leaders in speaking, writing and campaigning for human rights, oppressed people and injustice, was born on June 28, 1844 in County Meath, Ireland.
Conscripted into the British Army as a young man, O'Reilly was charged with sedition against the British Crown and sentenced to life imprisonment in an Australian penal colony. O’Reilly made a daring escape aboard a New Bedford whaler, Catalpa, in 1868, a feat that helped shape his legend by the time he landed in America.
When he arrived in Boston in 1870, he was infatuated by the possibilities of democracy and liberty. He spent the next twenty years of his life, until his death in 1890, speaking out on behalf of Irish, Blacks, Native Americans, Jews, Chinese and other beleaguered groups trying to make their way in America.
As editor and then owner of The Pilot, the leading Irish Catholic paper in America, O’Reilly used the paper as a bully pulpit to advance various causes. He befriended the Yankee establishment while admonishing them for the prejudices. He defended American Blacks who were still looking for post-Civil War equality. He welcomed new immigrants such as Jews and Chinese, insisting that they get the same privileges as Americans. Throughout his life he pursued freedom of Ireland from Britain, advocating for home rule and land reform.
In 1885 he delivered a thunderous speech in defense of the rights of Black citizens at Faneuil Hall before the Massachusetts Colored League. He said, "So long as American citizens and their children are excluded from schools, theaters, hotels, or common conveyances, there ought not to be among those who love justice and liberty any question of race, creed, or color; every heart that beats for humanity beats with the oppressed."
O'Reilly was a popular poet and speaker, often called upon to deliver poems at noteworthy occasions such as the unveiling of the Boston Massacre Monument on Boston Common in 1888. There, he read a poem dedicated to Crispus Attucks, killed by British soldiers at the Boston Massacre of 1770. Attucks' father was an African slave and his mother an American Indian.
O'Reilly died on August 10, 1890 from an accidental overdose of medication. He was taken back to St. Mary's Church in Charlestown for the funeral, one of the largest in Boston's history. "The greatest of Irish-Americas" is dead, proclaimed The Pilot.
A memorial to O'Reilly was commissioned to noted sculptor and friend Daniel Chester French. Vice President Adlai Stevenson and hundreds of Boston's prominent and ordinary citizens attended the official unveiling on June 20, 1896.
The bust of O'Reilly is set against a Celtic design stone, and the back of the memorial has bronze allegorical figures of Erin, flanked by Poetry and Patriotism. The O'ReillyMemorial is located in Boston's Fens at the intersection of Boylston and Fenway Streets, and is part of Boston’s Irish Heritage Trail.