The Harp Without the Crown – John Boyle O’Reilly


“One might well fancy that he had left the world altogether in coming from Boston to Butte and to have dropped off into a wonderful new planet….I can only express my delight at what I find here in Butte.” Quotation from John Boyle O’Reilly on March 13,1890.

Hello this is John Conlan, host of the Rocky Road to Dublin here on KBMF, and welcome to this episode of the Harp Without The Crown, where I will be discussing the two visits of John Boyle O’Reilly to Butte during March of 1890.

John Boyle O’Reilly is one of Ireland’s most remarkable historical figures and was a journalist, writer, poet, and humanitarian. Born in County Meath, O’Reilly worked in England before joining the British army where he served in a decorated light cavalry unit. There were 26,000 British troops stationed in Ireland at that time and sixty per cent of the British army were Irish. While in the British army he lived a double life as a soldier and also as a recruiter for the revolutionary Irish Fenian Brotherhood, an organization committed to Irish independence. As a recruiter he swore in 80 Fenians to the cause of Irish independence. He was discovered, convicted, sentenced to death, and served time in a succession of prisons where he was held solitary confinement. While in Mountjoy Prison he wrote on his cell wall ”once an Irish soldier, now an English felon, and proud of the exchange.” His death sentence was commuted and he was transported to Western Australia from where he eventually made a spectacular and daring escape to America.

In America, O’Reilly settled in Boston and blossomed as a poet, writer, lecturer, and editor of the Pilot, a Boston newspaper that catered mainly to the interests of Catholics. At the Pilot he became a powerful advocate for the rights of workers, African Americans, Native Americans, and Jews. He campaigned relentlessly against discrimation toward the Irish in America and a labor market that restricted Irish job applicants with the notice that “No Irish need Apply.” He also used the paper’s editorials to comment on the politics of America and Ireland. As newspaper editor, he reversed the direction of the Pilot, which historically had been hostile to abolition and often featured editorials with racist overtones. O’Reilly was a believer in the power of the written word, honest journalism, and public debate. He also felt that journalism had a vital position to explain the world in an honest manner. Even as an Irish-American, he retained a strong commitment to Ireland and was an important part of the Irish Land League and Home Rule movement.

O’Reilly was in Butte on two occasions, March 12 and March 30,1890, where he lectured twice at the Maguire Opera House. The March 12 lecture was entitled “Illustrious Irishmen of Our Country,” and reserved seats were priced from $0.75 to $1.25. A newspaper advertised the event “A Grand Intellectual Treat” and he enthusiastically introduced the audience to influential past and present historical figures of Ireland and their accomplishments. He also covered the prospects of Ireland becoming an independent nation stating “the future is working for Ireland and already the dawn of a brighter day can be observed.” The political future in Ireland at that time hinged upon the British Parliament approving Home Rule legislation which might provide Ireland with limited governmental autonomy.

On his March 31st return trip to Butte, O’Reilly was met at Garrison by a committee of citizens from Butte and escorted by a special train for his address at the Opera House that night. Entertainment by the Emmet Band preceded his remarks entitled, “The Present Conditions of the Irish Question.” It was reported in the press that he was “scholarly, moderate, convincing, and on the whole was the best statement on the subject.” In his lecture O’Reilly reviewed the political and economic history of 19th century Ireland, and detailed the uprisings and revolutions during the past 700 years. “The Irish question is no longer a question of politics but has become the leading question of English morality and common sense.” He noted that $1,000,000 a year was sent by Irish America to Ireland to stem evictions.

As with every person featured in this series, O’Reilly firmly believed in Irish independence. Initially he favored armed rebellion as a means to achieve his goal. His imprisonment in Australia and treatment by the British judicial system influenced his thinking on the subject. He eventually viewed violent armed rebellion as ineffective because several armed rebellions in Ireland had not accomplished independence. He became interested in promoting Home Rule legislation, a more gradual and non violent means for obtaining independence. This approach was firmly supported by many Irish politicians, especially the highly respected Charles Stewart Parnell, who secured O’Reilly’s acceptance of Home Rule. In addition to promoting Home Rule for Ireland, O’Reilly firmly believed assimilation of Irish immigrants into American society would do more for Irish independence than previous attempts at achieving independence. He was solidly on the path of accepting a less violent approach to achieving independence.

O’Reilly brought this perspective to Butte where opinion was divided concerning the strategy for obtaining Irish independence. This division reflected public opinion both in Irish America and Ireland. Would Irish independence be obtained through violent armed rebellion or by legislation and the judicial system? This division was reflected locally where Butte’s Robert Emmet Literary Association took a more radical approach to Irish independence that differed from O’Reilly and Butte’s increasing support for Home Rule. His visit to Butte gave support and a boost to advocates in Butte supporting Home Rule. Unfortunately for Home Rule advocates, the legislation failed after three attempts in the British Parliament. The resulting frustration led to more acceptance of armed violence as a means to achieve independence, as witnessed by the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916 just twenty six years after John Boyle O’Reilly’s visit to Butte.

This is John Conlan and thanks for listening to this episode of the Harp Without the Crown.