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The Gentle Warrior

It is ironic that a castle built to defend the Pale against the Gael was the the birthplace of such a champion of Gaelic freedom and independence as John Boyle O'Reilly. In fact, when Dowth Castle was built in the twelfth century by Hugh De Lacey, defence against the O'Reilly Clann was one of the things he had a mind.

The Meath countryside had been the nurturing grounds of O'Reilly chiefs, princes, warriors and scholars from time immemorial and they found themselves in deep conflict with the Anglo-Norman invaders.

Four miles from Drogheda, Dowth Castle still stands as a relic of that era, but it may be more famous for the fact that John Boyle O'Reilly was born there in June 28th 1844 than anything else.

My Love

The history of the neighbourhood surrounding Dowth Castle was ancient before the Anglo-Norman arrived. The origins of Irish Art can be traced from the walls of the megalithic structure of Newgrange and Dowth, among the most ancient and important in Europe, at Tara the traditional seat of Irish government stood, at Slane Hill, St. Patrick took his stand, at Rossnaree, King Brian Boru rests.

John Boyle O'Reilly in exile wrote to his friend in Ireland: "I send my love to the very fields and trees along the Boyne from Drogheda to Slane. Some time for my sake, go out to Dowth alone, and go up on the moat and look across the Boyne, over to Rossnaree to the Hill of Tara and Newgrange, and Knowth, and Slane and Mellifont and Oldbridge, and you will see there the picture, that I carry forever in my brain and heart ­ vivid as the last day I looked on them."

Indeed, the environment he grew up in was a major influence in the life and work of John Boyle O'Reilly. If we read the epic of Cúchulainn closely we will find that Ireland's most famous hero and warrior was conceived on or very near Dowth itself.


No one before or since John Boyle O'Reilly was to write about Cúchulainn with the depth and division that he did in his study of ancient Irish athletic games, exercises and weapons which is contained in his book, "Ethics of Boxing and Manly Sport."

He uncovered in the tales of Cúchulainn and Finn McCool an Irish tradition of martial arts that is still overlooked today. Many episodes in the lore concerning these heroes takes place in the neighbourhood surrounding his birthplace. Maeve's armies marched through Slane, Cúchulainn encountered enemies on the Boyne, Diarmuid and Grainne hid in Newgrange.

Although somewhat lacking today, there has been a tradition in Ireland of admiration for the athlete who is also a scholar. The idea of the poet-warrior is clearly characterized by Ossian in the Finn McCool cycle. John Boyle O'Reilly exemplified this tradition.


As a poet it has been said that had he been granted 20 years more of life he might have attained the foremost place in the literature of America. His poetry is strong, pure, tender, reverent and hope-inspiring. As a soldier, John Devoy speakes of him in his "Recollections" as the most interesting of all the Fenians.

His escape attempts and final escape from English jails testify to his physical endurance and athletic abilities. He maintained a keen interest in training through his life. The ancient Irish warrior was also trained as an orator.

Consciously or unconsciously, John Boyle O'Reilly fulfilled this tradition as well. His speeches are as important as his writing and poetry. His writing and poetry were a reflection of his life, thoughts were backed by his actions.


It is said of his poems of Ireland that they are the noblest tribute the English language ever paid her and of his poems of America that they were surpassed only by Whittier and Lowell. He has been called "The Poet of Liberty." He was indeed involved with the idea of liberty all his life.

He was born in famine-stricken Ireland, sentenced to hang at one point and spent years in some of the worst English jails. His involvement with liberty was not alone for Ireland but he had a universal sense of the dignity of man. He spoke eloquently for the black people in America.

He had a deep sympathy and understanding of them which appears to be lacking in the Irish in Boston today judging by the recent race riots. He also sympathised with the American Indian when it was not as fashionable as it is today. "He is not free", said John Boyle O'Reilly "who is free alone". The real motivation in his work in "Human Brotherhood" which unifies all.

As a journalist, he was sent to cover the riots that occurred when the Orange Lodges of New York marched on July 12th to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne , which took place in the immediate vicinity of his birthplace. In the fighting that occurred between Irish Catholics and Protestants in New York, four lives were lost. To O'Reilly this was a national degradation.

"Why must we carry wherever we go", he asked, "these accursed and contemptible island feuds. Once abroad a convict ship bound for Australia he had joined in with his fellow Irishman. Catholic and Protestant alike, in Christian prayer composed on that dreadful voyage.

The Fenianism of John Boyle O'Reilly was as strong and pure as his poetry, liberty was important, he proved he would die for it , but not at the expense of human brotherhood.

John Boyle O'Reilly was known as a kind, tender-hearted unselfish person. In America, he was known as a journalist, poet, orator, humanitarian, athlete, patriot of two peoples. In England he was imperial convict, registered No.9843 rebel, traitor and felon.

Because he was a man of many aspects, he saw the many aspects of things. He endured great suffering in life yet he never wrote a morbid or pessimistic thought. His memory endures because as he said himself "the dreamer lives forever and the toiler dies in a day.

His dream was "The Unity of Man's Blood." He was the invincible hero, constantly struggling without hate, vengeance and bigotry. He is remembered today in America schools bear his name, he is quoted by Presidents his home is now a library, plaques adorn his old haunts.

Less Spectacular

In Ireland, he is remembered in a less spectacular way as the people in the pub nearby his beloved birthplace bring his poetry alive again as it is still recited today.

He wanted to be buried at Dowth. When his body was laid to rest in America Patrick Collins said, "By the banks of that lovely river, hard by the great mysterious Rath, over one sanctified spot dearer than all others to home, where the dew glistened on the softest green, the spirit of O'Reilly hovered, and shook the stillness of the Irish dawn on its journey to the stars."

Martin Brennan,
Dowth Castle.

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