The Fenway Civic Association (FCA) held its 60th annual meeting virtually on Tuesday, Feb. 8, which included a spirited discussion on John Boyle O’Reilly, the 19th century Irish journalist, writer, and civil rights activist immortalized with a multi-figure bronze sculpture on the Back Bay Fens.
The meeting’s feature presentation on O’Reilly was moderated by WGBH”s Brian O’Donovan and also including Peter Drummey, chief historian and Stephen T. Riley librarian for the Massachusetts Historical Society; and Patricia Gilrein, the city’s art collection manager.
Born in 1844 in Dowth in County Meath, Ireland, O’Reilly immigrated to Lancashire, England, at age 15 and soon found work as a reporter. He enlisted with the English army shortly thereafter, but he was so appalled by the army’s treatment of the Irish, that he left and returned to Ireland in 1863.
O’Reilly joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood the following year. He remained with the group until early 1865, when he, along with many other members, was arrested and charged with treason.
O’Reilly was transported to and imprisoned in the British colony of Western Australia, but he was there for a little more than a year before he escaped on Feb. 18,1869. He then fled to the U|.S. with the help of New Bedford walers.
O’Reilly arrived in Philadelphia in 1869 and then spent a short time in New York before settling in Boston at age 26. He found work in Boston as reporter with The Pilot newspaper and would go on to serve as its editor and then co-owner. During his tenure with the newspaper, O’Reilly used The Pilot as a “pulpit to confront bigotry,” according to Matthew Brooks, vice president of the FCA board.
O’Reilly would continue to run The Pilot until his untimely death at age 46 from an overdose of sleeping medication on Aug. 10, 1890, at his residence in Hull.
Despite his accomplished career in journalism, it was his poetry, as well as his devotion to collecting Irish poetry and song, that made O’Reilly a celebrity during his lifetime, according to Drummey.
And as one of the founders of the Boston Athletic Association, which sponsors the Boston Marathon, O’Reilly hoped to impart his interest in Irish field sports on the American public, added Drummey.
Following his funeral at St. Mary’s Church in Charlestown on Aug. 13, 1890, O’Reilly was honored during a public memorial service on Sept. 2 of that year at Tremont Temple in Boston.
In 1892, David Chester French, the sculptor who designed the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., as well as the sculpture of John Harvard in Cambridge’s Harvard Yard, was commissioned to build a monument to O’Reilly.
On June 20, 1896, French’s multi-figure bronze sculpture of O’Reilly was unveiled during a ceremony attended by many elected officials and dignitaries at its original location at the entryway into the Fenway. (The sculpture was moved to its current location at the corner of Boylston Street and the Fens, across the street from its original site, in the 1980s.)
French’s memorial consists of two castings – allegorical representations of Erin (Ireland), Patriotism, and Poetry on one side, with a bust of O’Reilly on the other side. The pedestal for the memorial is adorned with Celtic imagery, including a Celtic cross and Celtic knots.
An inscription on one side of the monument reads: “John Boyle O’Reilly, 1844-1890, Poet, Patriot, Orator.”
Gilrein said the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture will supplement the FCA’s efforts to restore the O’Reilly monument, and has identified funding for the project. The City Council would then have to approve the expenditure, she said.
The FCA has already allocated $35,000 from the Fenway Park Demonstration funds in 2021 to repair and conserve the O’Reilly Monument.
The O’Reilly sculpture was also singled out as one of the top statues in need of attention during a recent audit of the city’s public statuary, said Gilrein.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s in good hands with the conservator we work with,” she said of Watertown-based Daedalus, Inc.
Tim Horn, president of the FCA board, said he “hope[s] there will be a nice presentation when it’s all done.”