Local Identities

John Boyle O’Reilly (1844 – 1890)

By Peter Murphy – John Boyle O’Reilly Tours, Western Australia.

John Boyle O’Reilly’s name is etched in Western Australia’s history in several ways.

As a 21-year-old Irish Fenian sentenced to death in 1866 by the Crown, and later commuted to life in the colonies – he had no idea – that in the 21st century, several South West locations would bear memorials to his name; the most famous being the John Boyle O’Reilly interpretive memorial on the beautiful Leshchenault Peninsula, in the Shire of Harvey. This is the spot where in Feb 1869 O’Reilly made a daring escape to America aboard the whaling ship Gazelle. Every March, dozens of people connected to or associated with Irish heritage, converge on the memorial to pay homage to their unsung hero.

Another South West location bearing his name is the John Boyle O’Reilly Park in Glen Iris on Vittoria Rd in the City of Bunbury. The tiny park is named to celebrate O’Reilly’s intervention that saved a majestic marri tree from destruction by the then convict road gang involved in building the Vasse Highway south. O’Reilly at that time pleaded with the boss of the road gang to spare the tree. It was only the intervention of the Governor’s wife who heard of the incident that convinced her husband that O’Reilly’s plea to conserve the tree had merit.

Marlston Hill Lookout in the heart of Bunbury, also pays homage to O’Reilly with the John Boyle O’Reilly Seat. Looking out over Koombana Bay, the seat houses a sculptured bust of O’Reilly, and faces the beautiful coastal strip where O’Reilly would have contemplated his daring escape.

The little hamlet of Dardanup is also associated with the O’Reilly story, as some locals believe that while on the run, O’Reilly hid in a well next to the Dardanup Hotel. The Dardanup Hotel now displays a beautiful copper mural depicting O’Reilly’s escape, including a replicate well in the Hotel’s beer garden.

The John Boyle O’Reilly story didn’t just end with his escape to America – for O’Reilly would also play a major role in the famous Catalpa Escape, when several convict Fenians also escaped from Fremantle Prison in 1876 to America on the whaler Catalpa. O’Reilly’s knowledge of the South West coastline ensured an escape plan out of a Hollywood epic that would set the colony alight, and embarrass the British establishment for years to come.

O’Reilly’s real contributions to Western Australia’s history were immortalised in several books and poems he wrote while as editor of the Boston Post with his most famous being Moondyne based loosely on the life of escaped bushman/convict Moondyne Joe. Several of O’Reilly’s poems and books also pay homage to Western Australia’s unique flora and fauna.

It was the late American President, John F Kennedy who immortalised O’Reilly’s literary contributions to American culture with several quotes from his poems embracing the cause of the common person.