John Boyle O'Reilly was an Irishman who through the circumstances of his early life became involved in the struggle for freedom in his country. A struggle which saw him suffer years of imprisonment and transportation to Western Australia as a convict where his story of escape has become a legend.
Born in June 1844 at Dowth Castle in the County of Meath, Ireland, John was the second son of a scholar with a younger brother and five sisters. He spent his childhood roaming the countryside of the Boyne Valley and playing sports.
John was apprenticed as a printer on the Drogheda Argus at the age of 11, and then on The Guardian in Preston, Lancashire. It was in this job that he learnt short hand and became a reporter. It was shortly after his arrival in Lancashire that John enlisted in the Eleventh Lancashire Rifles.
On his return to Ireland in 1863, at the age of 19 John enlisted in the Tenth Hussars, Prince of Wales' Own Regiment stationed at Dundalk. His main objective in doing this was to spread discontent and stimulate rebellion in the ranks. Having long been a supporter of the Fenian cause he joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
A model soldier and popular amongst the men, John was one of approximately 8,000 Fenians in the ranks of the British army. A scheme to enlist more Fenians for a planned rebellion against the British government in the hope of freeing Ireland failed and by 1865 the authorities had become aware of the plan.
An undercover policeman, Constable Kelly Talbot, was placed in the regiment to unearth the conspirators. Kelly was the key witness in the trial of many Fenians and was later shot dead on a crowded Dublin street for his treachery.
John was exposed and on the 6th March 1866 he was taken into custody and was held for months in the Arbor Hill Military Prison. He faced court on the 27th June and a number of witnesses attested to his Fenian activities. On the 9th July he was taken from court to Mountjoy Prison after being sentenced to death by firing squad. This was later changed to 20 years penal servitude.
The official charge was that he had not declared his knowledge of an intended mutiny in her Majesty's Forces in Ireland, and did not pass this information on to his commanding officer.
Charged at the same time with the same offence were:
Sergeant Charles McCarthy
Private Patrick Keating
Private Michael Harrington
Private Thomas Darragh
Captain James Murphy
John spent time in Pentonville, Millbank, Chatham and Dartmoor prisons from which he made several escape attempts, before being placed on the last shipload of convicts ever to be sent to Australia. The Hougomont sailed for Fremantle in 1867 with a cargo of 280 convicts, 62 of which were political prisoners, 17 of these Fenians where former soldiers like John.
The voyage took three months and concluded in January 1868 beginning John's short stint in the Australian bush. The convicts were sent to work on the roads around the new settlement at Port Leschenault (Bunbury). John's gentle demeanor and friendly face meant that he made friends easily and had soon befriended the local catholic priest and numerous settlers.
An amnesty for political prisoners in 1869 excluded John and he began making plans for his escape. With a companion John made the journey to the northern end of the Leschenault Estuary where they waited in hiding for more than two weeks before travelling out in an open boat and being picked up by Captain Gifford, on the American whaling ship the Gazelle. Records show that the settlers at the Buffalo homestead provided John with food and shelter during his wait.
The Gazelle landed in Philadelphia on the 23rd November, 1869 and John was free to start a new life in America, where he became a respected writer and poet. He was even editor of the Boston Post newspaper.
Mystery surrounds the escape of several of John's mates seven years after his own escape and there is speculation that he was the instigator. In April 1876, six prisoners escaped from Fremantle Prison and rowed out to meet a waiting American whaling vessel, the Catalpa (there is speculation that John had purchased a whaling vessel around this time). The guards noticed the escapees and commandeered the steamer Georgette to give chase. Their efforts failed and six more Fenians made their way to America.
An interpretive walk has been developed in the Leschenault Peninsula Conservation Park, detailing the John Boyle O'Reilly's escape. He was here for only a short time but his legend remains.