Early Bird Gets the Worm: How I Found a Rare Book From a Fenian Poet

Most weekends, I get up at ungodly hours and go to the local flea market to look for interesting books. I usually arrive at 7:00 a.m. or so when they are still unpacking. The dealers there bid on storage units and end up with all sorts of miscellaneous stock, among which are the books I buy.

To the flea market dealers, books are heavy, hard to sell and not usually worth much money. Prices for buyers are correspondingly low. Of course, I'm in book collector's heaven when I'm there.

Most of the books that I see there are from the 20th century. Books from the 16th to the 19th centuries are relatively scarce. One morning as I wandered bleary eyed through the aisles, I saw a green clothbound book that was certainly from the 19th century. I sped up, bypassing the dealer in Polish-made socks and the nice couple who sell slightly out of date health food from a local health food warehouse. As I got closer, I saw that the book was in comparatively good condition.

It was a copy of John O'Reilly's book of poetry, "Songs From The Southern Seas and Other Poems." My heart skipped a beat as I walked up to the booth with a face that I was doing my best to keep impassive. I needn't have bothered. The dealer was happy enough to get a
few dollars for the book.

I walked some distance from his booth and carefully tucked the book into a plastic bag. I've found that it's always best not to call a dealer's attention to my delight in any book that I buy there. The price of my next purchase will be increased by the dealer's estimate of my interest and excitement in the previous one.

I'd read about John O'Reilly previously and knew that he was one of the few Irishmen transported to Australia who had escaped imprisonment. In Ireland,O'Reilly was an ardent member of the Fenian party and a believer in a military solution to the problem of regaining Ireland's independence. He was captured by the English, tried and sentenced to death. His death sentence was commuted to 20 years imprisonment and after serving several years in English prisons, he was put on a convict ship bound for Australia.

After he had served some time in Australia, a friendly priest arranged for his escape. He was picked up by a whaling ship off the coast of Western Australia. After many vicissitudes, he ended up in Boston.There he wrote several books - mostly poetry - and wrote for the Boston newspaper The Pilot. He married and led a productive and adventurous life, dying at age 46. As a journalist,he covered the 1870 Fenian invasion of Canada which changed his mind about an exclusively military solution to independence for Ireland. After this experience, he advocated raising the level of self-esteem of the Irish - not the use of force. Nevertheless, he was able to use his knowledge of Australia to arrange the successful escape of other Fenians imprisoned in Australian prisons. This was known as the Catalpa escape.

The book in my hands was a very real physical connection with someone who had led a very adventurous life. Physically it was in near "Very Good" condition. It needed a little repair which I was able to do when I got home. I've studied bookbinding so I know to always use acid-free glue when repairing books.

This book was probably worth fifty dollars in the current book market. It taught me a million dollars worth of Irish history. Another fun day at the flea market!

Views: 262

Tags: Australia, Book, Boyle, Collecting, Fenian, Flea Markets, Literature, O'Reilly, Poetry, Seas, More…Songs

Comment by Bit Devine on September 22, 2014 at 3:24pm

The thrill of the hunt.. and the exhilarance of the find!

I used to haunt flea markets hunting for books... I have a full set of Will James first edition signed that I got for twenty dollars... And a full set of Louisa May Alcott first editions...also signed... which I also paid very little for...

There is a small shop in Doolin...on Fisher street... which all book hunters should visit...behind the curtain, in the back room...a treasure trove of antique books... Irish & American...

Comment by Gerry Regan on September 23, 2014 at 3:00pm

James, thanks for sharing this saga, and your gift for narrative. I'm looking forward to reading more. Go raibh mile maith agat! Ger 


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