Aylward, Alfred (1843–89), Fenian, was born in New Ross, Co. Wexford, son of a school inspector based in Enniscorthy. A police report later stated that his father died in Westport, Co. Mayo, in 1847. During the course of his life, Aylward used numerous aliases and told many exotic stories about his career as a soldier and a rebel. He claimed to have been a newspaper reporter in the American west, to have been a Russian spy on the north-west frontier of India, and to have traded in slaves in West Africa. Most of these claims were not substantiated and his writings and utterances must be treated with caution.
What is certain is that he attended the Jesuit college at Tullabeg (1855–8). He then served with Garibaldi during the 1860 campaign in Sicily, where he was wounded in the leg. This wound resulted in a period in Guy's Hospital in London, where he picked up some rudimentary medical knowledge, and during the American civil war (1861–5) he served as a surgeon in the union army. Returning to Dublin in 1865 he worked in the valuation office but was arrested after a drunken affray in Prussia St. in December. Police found incriminating papers on his person and in his lodgings and, suspected of being a Fenian, he was incarcerated in Kilmainham jail. He was soon released, however, and may well have promised to act as a police informer to secure his freedom. He secured a job in the office of the crown solicitor, George Bolton, where he excited the suspicions of the DMP detective John Mallon (qv) by wearing ‘Fenian get-up’. Aylward was arrested and found to have incriminating papers.
Released once again, in May 1867 he was found lying injured near Portobello Barracks in Rathmines. Brought to Mercer's Hospital, he claimed that he had been attacked by seven Fenian associates who suspected him of being an informer. Although he claimed to have been hit by three bullets he was found to have only superficial wounds and was arrested under the habeas corpus suspension act and sent to Kilmainham. He later claimed that this incident occurred due to his warning Lord Naas (qv), then chief secretary, of an assassination plot against him. Released in August 1867, he went to South Africa, arriving there in 1868. According to his own account, before his arrival in South Africa he was involved in the attempt to rescue Thomas J. Kelly (qv) and Timothy Deasy (qv) in Manchester in September 1867, and also in the explosion at Clerkenwell prison in London (December 1867).
His career in South Africa was to be equally colourful. He initially worked for a newspaper in the Cape and then (1870) moved to the Bultfontein diamond field, where he worked as a digger. In September 1871 he was one of the founders of the Free Roman Catholic Hospital of St Mary's, serving as the hospital's surgeon. After a fracas in which he shot and wounded a man, he was arrested and sentenced to eighteen months’ hard labour, which he served in the Barkly jail. He moved to Kimberley in Griqualand West on his release, working in the diamond field, and was soon chairman of the diggers' committee. By 1875 the diggers were protesting against the activities of large companies and also the liberal policy of the lieutenant governor, Sir Richard Southey, towards the native population. Aylward was by now editor of a local paper, the Diamond Field, and played a leading role in these agitations. In April 1875 the ‘rebellion of the black flag’ broke out, and after its suppression he was tried as one of the ringleaders but was acquitted. Southey was recalled and ultimately the diggers won: the native population could no longer own claims in the diamond field but only work as unskilled labour.
In 1876 he fought in the Sekukini war as second-in-command, and then commander, of the Lydenburg Volunteer Corps. After the annexation of the Transvaal (1877) he founded a hospital at Lydenburg and then travelled to England to supervise the publication of his book, The Transvaal of today (London, 1878), which received good reviews as a well researched account of the Transvaal and its people. On his return to South Africa he offered his services to the government, then engaged in the Zulu war, and when these were refused took up an appointment as editor of the Natal Witness. On the outbreak of the first Boer war (1880) he offered his services to the Transvaal government and, attached as surgeon to the force of Gen. Joubert, came to be known as ‘Joubert's Fenian’ and took part in the battle of Majuba Hill (February 1881). Aylward reportedly advised the Boers to shoot the British officers and the battle resulted in a humiliating defeat for the British. One of the British casualties was Dublin-born Gen. George Colley, who had known Aylward before the war. Aylward later took part in the siege of Lydenburg and at the end of the war left South Africa, travelling on the same ship as Lord Chelmsford.
He contributed a number of articles to Frazer's Magazine, and an anonymous article hostile to the Fenians, published in Blackwood's Magazine, has been attributed to him. In 1882 he went to America, where he gave a series of lectures on Ireland and South Africa. Arthur Griffith (qv) later stated that, while in America, Aylward was brought before a Fenian tribunal, charged with being an informer, and acquitted. After the Phoenix Park murders (May 1882) an anonymous letter appeared in the Freeman's Journal which indicated that the writer had some knowledge of the assassination plot. Mallon later identified the handwriting of the original letter as being that of Aylward.
In 1884 he joined Louis Riel in Canada and took part in his rebellion. His later years remain a mystery. Some reports claimed that he served with the Mahdi's forces in the Sudan, while others stated that he died in Sweden. Another report claimed that he had died in a train crash in America. In August 1889 an obituary notice appeared in the Irish Times stating that he had died in a wagon crash at Littletown, New Hampshire, and that before his death he had been working in a copper mine in New Hampshire. While this report is now generally accepted as being true, it is worth noting that Aylward had previously placed a false notice of his death in a South African newspaper while on the run from the authorities.
He married (1883) Carrie Van Hoeson of Brooklyn, but they were divorced a few years later. It is not known if there were any children. A friend of Charles Lever (qv), he claimed that the character of Joe Atley in Lord Kilgobbin (1872) was based on him. He was also a friend of J. A. Froude (qv).
As a curious epilogue to his eventful life, his adventures were recounted by Arthur Griffith in the United Irishman in 1899 as part of the Irish pro-Boer campaign. He was promoted as a political icon, and at a public rally in Dublin a crowd of over 20,000 cheered his memory.