O'Reilly, John Boyle (1844–90), journalist, poet and political activist, was born 28 June 1844 in Douth, Co. Meath, third child among three sons and five daughters of William David O'Reilly and Mary O'Reilly (née Boyle). He attended the local national school where his father was the head teacher. At the age of eleven he was apprenticed to the Drogheda Argus. On emigrating to England in 1859, O'Reilly worked as a compositor and reporter for the Preston Guardian before returning to Ireland in 1863, when he joined the 10th Hussars regiment of the British army on 1 July in Dublin. Recruited into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) by John Devoy (qv), he eventually brought eighty fellow soldiers into the Fenian movement. O'Reilly was arrested and convicted by court martial of conspiracy to incite military mutiny in July 1866. Along with sixty-one other Fenians, he was transported to Western Australia in 1867, where he served as a probationary constable at the Bunbury prison labour camp. In March 1869 O'Reilly made a daring escape from the penal colony on the New Bedford whaler, the Gazelle, eventually arriving in Philadelphia (November). He quickly established contact with American Fenians, enrolling in the 1st Battalion of the Legion of St Patrick and attending the April 1870 Fenian convention in New York, but the ill-conceived and futile Fenian raid from St Albans, Vermont, on Canada the following June, in which he participated and covered for Boston's Pilot newspaper, precipitated his resignation from the Fenian movement. Nonetheless, O'Reilly remained friendly with his former colleagues, especially Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa (qv) and John Devoy, with whom he organised the Clan na Gael-sponsored rescue of six Fenians from Western Australia in 1876 on the New Bedford whaling ship, the Catalpa.
O'Reilly enjoyed a rapid advance in his chosen career, becoming editor in 1874 and two years later co-owner of the Pilot, the country's foremost catholic newspaper. Under his editorship the paper had a national weekly circulation of 103,000, providing timely news on Irish political developments to its subscribers, the majority of whom were recent Irish immigrants. As a popular orator, prolific journalist, and especially as editor (1874–90) of the Pilot, O'Reilly championed the cause of Irish nationalism. While rejecting Fenian methods on pragmatic grounds, he remained faithful to the republican, non-sectarian principles of the movement throughout his life. His enthusiasm for land reform was reflected in the support and detailed coverage the paper gave to the organisation and activity of the Irish Land League (1879–82). He welcomed Michael Davitt (qv) to Boston on three occasions and commissioned him to submit articles on the land question and Irish politics for the Pilot. O'Reilly was consulted on and approved the ‘New Departure’ arrangements worked out by Devoy and Davitt in 1878 to provide American support for the land agitation and the political efforts of C. S. Parnell (qv). He supported the land agitation chiefly for its utility in strengthening the national political cause rather than for any specific programme of land reform. After Parnell's election as president of the Irish National Land League in late 1879, in January 1880 O'Reilly officially welcomed him to New York and presided at a very successful Boston meeting, one of sixty in the Irish leader's American tour. O'Reilly helped organise and chaired the first national convention of the American Land League in New York city on 18–19 May 1880. He admired Anna (qv) and Fanny Parnell (qv) for their efforts on behalf of Irish tenants and published a number of Fanny's poems, including her famous ‘Hold the harvest’. Over the next few years, his vigorous and articulate espousal of the home rule cause in print and on public platforms mobilised the American Irish community in Boston and beyond. O'Reilly's literary interests generated friendships with some prominent American literary figures such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and T. W. Higginson, who gained a new respect for Ireland, its people, and the nationalist cause from knowing him. The invitation that O'Reilly received to compose and read a poem for the dedication of Plymouth Rock in 1889 was a sign of the great esteem Boston's Brahmin elite had for him, as well as of his effectiveness in promoting better relations between them and the burgeoning Irish immigrant community in the city. Notwithstanding his deep commitment to the freedom of his homeland, O'Reilly urged his fellow Irishmen and other immigrants to integrate into mainstream American political and civic life.
O'Reilly's greatest contribution as a journalist and poet rests on his recognition of the negative consequences of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation. He was a passionate advocate for the downtrodden and all victims of racial, ethnic, class, and religious discrimination and oppression. A full decade before the publication of Rerum novarum (1891) by Pope Leo XIII, O'Reilly urged his readers, and especially the Roman catholic clergy, to reject a complacent acceptance of poverty and human misery based on laissez-faire economics and Spencerian notions of evolutionary determinism. O'Reilly defended labour's right to organise, and frequently called for legislation providing for minimum wages, compulsory arbitration, and stronger factory inspection procedures to ensure safety and limits on child and female labour. As a firm believer in the equality and dignity of each individual, O'Reilly in his editorials railed against the injustice and discrimination experienced by black citizens which he witnessed in the American south. As he did with his fellow Irish immigrants, he urged black Americans to mobilise politically and to acquire as much education as possible to take full advantage of their rights as citizens and to realise their full human potential. O'Reilly was a fierce critic of religious prejudice of any kind, readily condemning catholic as well as protestant intolerance, as shown by his outrage over catholic attacks on parading Orangemen in New York in July 1870. O'Reilly's passionate pleas for social justice, clean government, and prison and asylum reform, and his acceptance of some government intervention to improve urban environmental conditions, foreshadowed initiatives associated with American Progressivism at the century's end.
Between 1873 and 1886 O'Reilly published four books of poetry, the last of which, In Bohemia (1886), is considered his best. In 1878 his novel Moondyne, a romantic adventure based on his Australian experience, was serialised in the Pilot and later published in numerous editions. Like many of his former Fenian colleagues, O'Reilly valued athletics for their character-building potential, and in 1888 he published Ethics of boxing and Manly sport. The public renown O'Reilly earned was reflected in his presidency of the Boston Press Club, his honorary degrees from Notre Dame University (1881) and Georgetown University (1889), as well as his induction into Phi Beta Kappa at Dartmouth College (1881). His unexpected death at age forty-six from an accidental overdose of sleeping medicine on 10 August 1890 in Hull, Massachusetts, generated scores of tributes and testimonials from prominent Irish and American politicians, leading catholic churchmen as well as notables in the literary establishment (President Benjamin Harrison, Patrick A. Collins, Archbishop John J. Williams, Cardinal James Gibbons, Oliver Wendell Holmes). O'Reilly was buried at Holyhood cemetery in Brookline, Massachusetts; he was survived by his widow and four daughters.
He married (15 August 1872) in Charlestown, Massachusetts, Mary, daughter of two Irish immigrants, James Murphy of Co. Fermanagh and Jane Murphy (née Smiley) of Co. Donegal. She shared O'Reilly's literary interests and took a leading role in editing his poems and speeches after his death. The John Boyle O'Reilly memorial on Boston's Fenway, which features a bust of O'Reilly surrounded by carved Gaelic interlace, was funded by public subscriptions collected shortly after his death. A similar memorial with Gaelic-revival motifs was erected in his native Douth in 1903. The Burns Library at Boston College holds a small collection of his papers as well as a bust of O'Reilly. Other repositories containing limited O'Reilly material are the Boston Public Library, Houghton Library of Harvard University, and the archives of the archdiocese of Boston. A slim volume of unpublished poems written during his Australian sojourn and dedicated to the Rev. Patrick McCabe, the priest who arranged O'Reilly's escape, was discovered more recently and is at the Battye Library in Perth, Australia.