Breslin, John J. (c.1836–1888), Fenian, was born in Drogheda, Co. Louth, third of six sons and at least two daughters of a Co. Tyrone father; nothing further is known of his parents. He received a good national school education and was always a studious reader. Employed as a hospital steward at Richmond prison, Dublin, he sympathised with but did not join the IRB. He offered to help James Stephens (qv) escape from Richmond, and on 24 November 1865, by making a duplicate of his cell key and helping him scale the prison wall, managed to effect the escape. He then returned to his duty and avoided coming under suspicion till a year later, when he emigrated to America. He lived in Boston for many years and joined the United Irish Brotherhood, a small Fenian group. John Boyle O'Reilly (qv) described him as cultured, modest, and unassuming: ‘In thought and appearance eminently a gentleman; in demeanour dignified and reserved; in observance, rather distrustful, as if disappointed in his ideal man; somewhat cynical perhaps, and often stubbornly prejudiced and unjust’ (Roche, 173).
John Devoy (qv) had been impressed by Breslin's coolness and decisiveness during Stephens's escape and asked him to organise the rescue of Fenian prisoners from Fremantle, Western Australia; the prisoners were former British soldiers who were not eligible for amnesty. Breslin accepted and agreed to the condition that he join Clan na Gael. On 13 September 1875 he sailed from San Francisco and on 16 November arrived in Fremantle, from where he planned the operation, passing himself off as ‘James Collins’, an American mining millionaire. Within a week he had established contact with the prisoners, and in mid December undertook a tour of Fremantle prison, accompanied by the prison superintendent. Finding the prison secure and well guarded, he decided to attempt the rescue when the prisoners were working outside. The rescue ship, a 90-ft (27.4 m) American whaler called Catalpa, arrived at Bunbury, the nearest merchant port to Fremantle, on 28 March 1876. Breslin travelled to Bunbury to confer with the ship's American captain, George Anthony, and they decided that the rescue should go ahead on 17 April 1876 (Easter Monday). That morning, while the prisoners were working outside the jail, Breslin used a ruse to get them away from their guard, and then conveyed them to the coast, where they were picked up by a whaleboat and transferred to the Catalpa the following day. They were soon chased by the British steamer Georgette, which fired a shot across the Catalpa's bows and ordered it to stop. Breslin decided to take the chance that the Georgette would not fire on a ship flying the American flag and instructed Anthony not to change his course. The Georgette did not fire and after some hours gave up the chase.
Breslin and Anthony then intended to defray the expedition's costs by going an a month-long whaling voyage in the North Atlantic, but the released prisoners and some of the Fenians on board complained of their privations (some claiming that they had been better off in Fremantle) and demanded to be put ashore immediately. Breslin gave way and the Catalpa arrived in New York on 19 August 1876 to enthusiastic celebrations by Irish-Americans. The operation was a great propaganda boost for Devoy and Clan na Gael, and Breslin was voted $1,000 by the Clan and honoured at a reception in Boston (24 September 1876). Breslin had the distinction of planning and executing the two most successful Fenian rescues, and his record contrasted starkly with other bungled Fenian operations. He was, however, much criticised by anti-Devoy factions for the operation's cost (about $25,000) and his failure to keep detailed accounts.
Breslin remained involved with the Clan, supported the ‘new departure’ alliance of October 1878 with Charles Stewart Parnell (qv) and the Land League, and welcomed Parnell to New York on 29 December 1879. At a reception to celebrate the Catalpa rescue in 1876 he met John P. Holland (qv), who claimed he could build a submarine that would neutralise British naval supremacy. Breslin, who had been appointed a trustee of the Clan's skirmishing fund, was impressed by Holland's plans and was entrusted to oversee the project. About $60,000 from the skirmishing fund was spent on developing the submarine (1876–82) and a prototype, nicknamed ‘The Fenian ram’ (with some minor design adjustments by Breslin), was launched in 1881, but spiralling costs led the Clan to withdraw funding in 1883. From 1881 to 1885 Breslin worked for Devoy as business manager and editor of the Irish Nation. To the end of his days he firmly believed that only physical force could win Irish independence. Disillusioned with the repeated postponements of action in Ireland by James Stephens, he once remarked that he had rescued ‘a damned nice old woman’ (O'Brien, i, 422). He refused to condemn the Phoenix Park murders of 6 May 1882, claiming that ‘British rule in Ireland is an outrage on humanity, crying aloud to heaven and to man for vengeance’ (Irish Nation, 13 May 1882). He died unmarried 18 November 1888 in New York.
Breslin's five brothers were all Fenians: John Denvir (qv) claimed they were ‘the most capable Irishmen I ever met’ (Denvir, 76). Four of them, Thomas, Ephraim, Niall, and Patrick, took part in the 1867 rising. Another, Michael (d. c.1914), was a Fenian spy who worked as a clerk in a police superintendent's office; he fled to America after his near arrest in 1867, and often acted as a Fenian agent, especially for the faction of W. R. Roberts (qv). Thomas (d. c.1913) was a sergeant in the DMP, and also fled to America in 1867 to avoid arrest. Niall (d. p. 1915), a Dublin Fenian centre, and Patrick (1852–1914), only 15 years old in 1867, were imprisoned after the rising, and emigrated to America after their release; both were active in American Fenianism.