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Dublin, Ireland (First published 10/5/11) -- “Although this is Ian’s third book,” Paula Elmore from The Collins Press told the assembled guests, “this is his first book launch.” On this unique occasion, held Sept. 20, I was delighted to be part of the 50 or more present in The Gutter Bookshop, an award-winning independent bookstore located in Dublin’s bohemian Temple Bar neighborhood.
Irish author and County Limerick native Ian Kenneally launched “From the Earth, a Cry - The Story of John Boyle O'Reilly.” Kenneally's previous works, Courage and Conflict: Forgotten Stories of the Irish at War” and “The Paper Wall,” are critically acclaimed. He is part of that rare breed of historical wordsmiths. Meticulous in his research, Kenneally can recount history in a manner that excites his readers, rather than lecturing to them. And so it is in his latest offering.
Based on research in Ireland, Australia and the United States, “From the Earth, A Cry” is a compelling account of an extraordinary life. John Boyle O’Reilly (1844-1890) is one of Ireland’s most remarkable historical figures a man who was an internationally renowned journalist, writer and humanitarian. Born in Dowth, near the ancient Hill of Tara in Meath, O’Reilly worked in England before joining the British army. Ostensibly a proud soldier, O’Reilly lived a double life as a recruiter for the revolutionary Fenian Brotherhood. He was discovered and convicted, serving time in a succession of prisons, from Mountjoy to Dartmoor.
British authorities transported O’Reilly to an Australian penal colony, from where he made a spectacular escape to the United States, an escapade retold by Kenneally in a manner befitting a thrilling Hollywood script. It was in the United States that O’Reilly’s brilliance flowered. As editor of Boston’s biggest selling Irish-American weekly newspaper, The Pilot, he became a powerful advocate of civil rights of minorities within society, be it the plight of his own immigrant countrymen or African-Americans. He retained a strong commitment to Ireland, working closely with Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell, both renowned stalwarts in the Irish nationalist movement of the era. A complex and charismatic personality, O’Reilly’s popularity transcended race, religion and nationality.
After the formalities had ended, I spoke to the author and asked him the obvious question for any historical biographer, why focus on this person? “For many years I have been fascinated by O’Reilly’s life as a convict, his journalism and his support for civil rights,” enthused Kenneally, continuing,
“The more I discovered about his extraordinary life, the more determined I was to try and bring his story and his writing to a wider audience.”
O’Reilly was also an insightful and accomplished poet. Kenneally borrows the title of his biography from one of O’Reilly’s better-known works, a poem that is as relevant today as it was during the economic depressions that afflicted America in the decades after its Civil War. First published in an 1881 book of poems, “From the Earth, A Cry” conveys O’Reilly’s contempt for the exploitation of the working class by the wealthy. The poem imagines the planet calling on its oppressed classes to rise. If O'Reilly could see the consumerism, self-centeredness, greed, and violence that exist today in much of the world, he would see his words resonate once again with the downtrodden. He writes:
Insects and vermin, ye, the starving and dangerous myriads,
List to the murmur that grows and growls! Come from your mines and mills,
Pale-faced girls and women with ragged and hard-eyed children,
Pour from your dens of toil and filth, out to the air of heaven—
Breathe it deep, and hearken! A Cry from the cloud or beyond it,
A Cry to the toilers to rise, to be high as the highest that rules them,
To own the earth in their lifetime and hand it down to their children!
In “From the Earth, A Cry,” Kenneally has produced a masterful biography, of an Irishman who deserves greater recognition today as one of Ireland’s first and foremost international humanitarians.
TheWildGeese.com Contributing Editor Robert Doyle is a Kildare-based writer with a particular interest in Carlow native Myles Walter Keogh, who served in the Company of St. Patrick and who was killed while fighting with the U.S. Seventh Cavalry at Little Bighorn in 1876. Doyle is co-producer of www.MylesKeogh.org