Saturday, November 17, 2007

The dreamer

I'm not sure exactly which side of the family passed down to me a love of poetry, but it has always been a part of me. My grandfather was known to have some classic poems memorized, and he often encouraged my childhood writing attempts, but I do not know if he ever penned a poem of his own. My dream would be to someday uncover a notebook of writings by him or a great-grandfather or great-grandmother who also loved to read and write poetry. So many things are lost to history: names, dates, where family members lived, their occupations. But so much more that a family historian can sometimes only dream of discovering.

So with the knowledge that I have Irish ancestors who loved poetry, and with the sad realization that I may never know who they were, I share with you a story of another Irish poet. One who lived an adventurous and incredibly busy life, yet found the time to pen meaningful verse that still lives on today. In fact, he may have been John F. Kennedy's favorite poet.

John Boyle O'Reilly was born in 1844, just three years after my great-great-grandfather Patrick Tierney and at the onset of the Great Irish Famine. John was born in a castle near Drogheda, north of Dublin, to a family that took seriously their Irish patriotism.

O'Reilly's early life included a good early education, newspaper work and military training. His amazing story continued with his involvement in the secret Irish society of Fenians, two years in English prisons for this offense, his deportation to Western Australia, and finally his escape and arrival in the United States. John began his new life of freedom in Boston and went on to become the editor and part-owner of The Pilot, Boston's well-known Irish newspaper.

After such an adventurous and difficult life, it is no wonder O'Reilly longed for the peaceful days of his childhood back in the country in Ireland.

John Boyle O'Reilly's poem, The Cry of the Dreamer, expresses his longing for a simpler time and place:
I am tired of planning and toiling
In the crowded hives of men,
Heart-weary of building and spoiling,
And spoiling and building again,
And I long for the dear old river,
Where I dreamed my youth away;
For a dreamer lives forever,
And a toiler dies in a day.

I am sick of the showy seeming,
Of life that is half a lie;
Of the faces lined with scheming
In the throng that hurries by;
From the sleepless thought's endeavor
I would go where the children play;
For a dreamer lives forever,
And a thinker dies in a day.

I can feel no pride, but pity,
For the burdens the rich endure;
There is nothing sweet in the city
But the patient lives of the poor.
Oh, the little hands too skillful,
And the child-mind choked with weeds!
The daughter's heart grown willful
And the father's heart that bleeds!

No! no! from the street's rude bustle,
From trophies of mart and stage,
I would fly to the wood's low rustle
And the meadows' kindly page.
Let me dream as of old by the river,
And be loved for my dreams alway;
For a dreamer lives forever,
And the toiler dies in a day.

A newspaperman and poet, he had the knowledge of the world around him and the artistic ability to express that world in a way that helped others to see it with new eyes. One of my favorite of O'Reilly's statements speaks of the freedom of the press:

For all time to come, the freedom and purity of the press are the test of national virtue and independence. No writer for the press, however humble, is free from the burden of keeping his purpose high and his integrity white.

Quoted in Roche, James Jeffrey (1891). Life of John Boyle O'Reilly, together with his complete poems and speeches edited by Mrs John Boyle O'Reilly. New York. p 195.

John Boyle O'Reilly was perhaps the most influential Irishman in 19th-century Boston. For twenty years (from his arrival in Boston in 1870 to his death in 1890) he acted, according to, as "a spokesman for the downtrodden, at times singlehandedly bridging the gap between people of various races, creeds and nationalities".

The life of John Boyle O'Reilly, the ideals he stood for and the work he did to encourage those ideals is immortalized in the John Boyle O'Reilly Memorial (at left), located along the Irish Heritage Trail in Boston. The O'Reilly Memorial was dedicated in 1896.

More information about the O'Reilly Memorial and other sites of interest on the Boston Irish Heritage Trail is located on their website. The Irish Heritage Trail is (according to "a self-guided, three mile walking tour that takes you through Boston's downtown, North End, Beacon Hill and Back Bay. You'll learn about famous politicians, artists, matriarchs and war heroes, part of a rich tradition of rebellion, leadership and triumph that personifies the Boston Irish." (Talk about good stories.) The site includes a clickable version of the trail map below, with information about each memorial or site of interest.

Sometimes referred to as "the capitol of Irish America", Boston's past is rich with stories of Irish immigrants like John Boyle O'Reilly and the America that they and their descendants embraced and influenced to become the Boston we know today.

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