Reilly, Thomas Devin (1824–54), nationalist and journalist, was born 30 March 1824 in Monaghan town, one of at least two sons of Thomas Reilly, a solicitor with a large practice in Monaghan and Dublin. A catholic, Thomas senior was appointed solicitor for lunatics and minors in the court of chancery c.1836 and later taxing master in the same court for his election services to the whigs; he was also a member of O'Connell's legal team in the conspiracy trial of 1844.
After some schooling in Monaghan, Thomas Devin was educated at Usher's Quay and Huddart's seminary when his father moved to Dublin in 1836. He entered TCD 14 October 1842, but did not take a degree, despite showing considerable ability in mathematics and classics. An eager reader of Irish and European history, he was a passionate devotee of the Nation from its first publication in October 1842, and identified strongly with the Young Ireland movement. In Dublin he renewed acquaintance with his townsman and Nation editor, Charles Gavan Duffy (qv), and from October 1845 contributed articles and verse to the paper. Duffy described him as ‘outspoken to a charm, perhaps to a fault. He was middle-sized, but strongly built, with a head that seemed unduly large even for his sturdy frame, a great crop of light hair, and large, full, protruding blue eyes. He was a big, clumsy, careless, explosive boy in appearance, but he possessed a range of ideas and a vigour of expression which made him a companion for men’ (Four years, 16). Reilly was appointed to the Nation's staff in April 1846, becoming a close friend and ally of its assistant editor John Mitchel (qv), and he lodged occasionally at Mitchel's house in Rathmines. Briefly a member of the Repeal Association, he quit with his fellow Young Irelanders in July 1846, in protest at the resolutions of Daniel O'Connell (qv) condemning physical force, and helped write a remonstrance protesting against the split on behalf of 1,500 Dublin tradesmen. When presented to the association on 24 October 1846 it was thrown into the gutter on the orders of John O'Connell (qv). A founding member of the Irish Confederation (13 January 1847), he was appointed to its policy council. Strongly influenced by the calls of James Fintan Lalor (qv) for the abolition of landlordism, he condemned the famine as deliberate genocide. Bitterly frustrated with the passivity of his countrymen, he denounced them as ‘the most humiliated, the most pitiable, the most helpless, the most despised people with a white skin on the face of God's whole earth’ (Nation, 24 Apr. 1847). The violence of his language exasperated moderate confederates, especially the confederation's secretary Thomas D'Arcy McGee (qv). Personal antipathy combined with political differences to make the two men bitter enemies.
When Mitchel quit the Nation in December 1847 Reilly followed and launched a stinging attack on Duffy. The two then attempted to persuade the confederation to abandon constitutional agitation and adopt a militant policy of encouraging the peasantry to refuse to pay rent and rates and forcibly resist evictions. They were defeated and resigned from the confederation's council on 31 January 1848. Reilly retained a following among radical confederates and was elected president of the Swift Confederate Club in Dublin. He wept with joy on hearing of the French revolution of February 1848, openly proclaimed his republicanism, and called on the confederate clubs to form a national guard and emulate the French. One of the main contributors to Mitchel's United Irishman, he wrote some of its most violent articles, notably ‘The French fashion’ (4 Mar. 1848), which advised on street-fighting techniques such as flinging vitriol on troops; Mitchel regarded it as ‘one of the most telling revolutionary documents ever penned’ (Irish Citizen, 18 Jan. 1868). Another article (18 March 1848) outraged many nationalists by attacking the recently deceased O'Connell as an enemy of the working man. Such extremism forced his resignation from the confederation on 3 May 1848. After Mitchel's transportation, Reilly, Lalor, and John Martin (qv) founded the Irish Felon (24 June–22 July 1848) to carry on his work. The paper was sometimes even more radical than Mitchel's, praising the June rising of Parisian workers: ‘again and again the labourer will rise up against the idler – the working men will meet this bourgeoisie and grapple and war with them, till their equality is established’ (Irish Felon, 1 July 1848). Such views led James Connolly (qv) to single out Reilly as a pioneer Irish socialist.
In July Reilly was elected to a five-man executive of the confederate clubs, which decided on insurrection. He was with Smith O'Brien (qv) as he attempted to gather a force in Co. Kilkenny and Co. Tipperary, but was frustrated by O'Brien's refusal to attack crown forces or commandeer private property. He and Michael Doheny (qv) tried to rouse the people around Slievenamon, but their efforts proved hopeless, and Reilly returned to Monaghan and went into hiding. Aided by some local protestant gentry families (he had long since irrevocably quarrelled with his father), he narrowly avoided arrest. Around October he returned to Dublin disguised as a groom, and eventually escaped to New York in November 1848.
Weeks later he and John McClenehan launched the People, described as ‘the most brilliant Irish newspaper, during its existence, ever published in America’ (Cavanagh, 448). It strongly supported European republicans and was soon in trouble for its trenchant criticisms of the papacy. In desperate poverty, Reilly took a job with the Whig Review, but was dismissed after six months because of the radical tone of his articles. Early in 1850 he went to Boston to write for the pro-labour Protective Union. Here he met Jennie Miller (c.1831–1892), formerly of Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, and they married in Providence, Rhode Island (30 March 1850); a protestant, she converted to catholicism on marriage. In early 1852 he returned to New York to write for the American Review. His articles were characterised by their fiery attacks on British imperialism and American conservatives, and by their fervent support for European republicans. However, he became disillusioned with Mazzini and Kossuth when they allied themselves with English liberals, and had a stormy interview with Kossuth in New York. He contributed to several Irish-American papers, and for two years edited the New York Democratic Review. Despite being often in debt, these were among his happiest years as he and his wife regularly entertained fellow exiles such as T. F. Meagher (qv), John Savage (qv), P. J. Smyth (qv), and Joseph Brenan (qv) in their small house in Brooklyn. A lively, impetuous, generous and highly amusing character, Reilly was held in great affection by his friends.
He admired the fiery Democratic senator, Stephen A. Douglas, and strongly supported his campaign for the presidential nomination in 1852. When Douglas failed to get the nomination he threw his weight behind the Democratic candidate, Franklin Pierce, who was elected president. These efforts earned him a government position in the land office in Washington from September 1853; he also edited the Washington Union, a staunchly Democratic paper. Always prone to nervous headaches, as he neared his thirtieth birthday, he claimed that he sensed the approach of death. Feeling unwell, he gathered his household around him, toasted the freedom of Ireland with a broad smile and tears streaming down his cheeks, retired to his bed, and died that night, 5 March 1854. A large Celtic cross was erected by Clan na Gael in May 1881 over his grave in Mount Olivet cemetery, Washington. He had two children, one of whom survived him, but died young.