“I DID history to BA level and I never heard of John Boyle O’Reilly until I played at a club named after him in Springfield, Massachusetts. I’d love to know why he’s been written out of Irish history.”
So says the great Galway folk-singer and songwriter Sean Tyrrell who is on a one man mission to re-awaken awareness of and interest in John Boyle O’Reilly (1844 - 1890 ), the Irish journalist, poet, Republican, and civil rights campaigner, through his show Message Of Peace.
Sean will present Message Of Peace in The Crane Bar, Sea Road, this Saturday and on Saturday July 25 at 6.30pm as part of the Galway Arts Festival. “I cannot understand why lesser Irish men are celebrated while better men like O’Reilly are forgotten,” Sean tells me during our Monday afternoon interview.
John Boyle O’Reilly was born in Co Louth and at 19 joined The Fenians, was later convicted and deported to Australia, he emigrated to the USA where he became an influential and outspoken journalist and newspaper editor, civil rights campaigner, a poet, and a champion of Irish poetry, concerned to promote awareness of the form in the States.
Sean first became interested in O’Reilly when he found O’Reilly’s book A Thousand Years Of Irish Poetry in a bookshop in New York. Five of O’Reilly’s own poems were in there and three of them - ‘Cry Of A Dreamer’, ‘Message Of Peace’, and ‘Only From Day To Day’ - captivated Sean.
“When I read ‘Message Of Peace’ I was so astounded,” he says. “It could be a pen picture of any US president of the last 30 years from Nixon to Reagan to Bush, and particularly Bush.”
He set them to music and they became the “backbone” of his acclaimed 1996 debut album Cry Of A Dreamer.
Thanks to a friend in Boston called Ted Moriarty and Galway bookseller Des Kenny, Sean amassed all the information he could about O’Reilly and produced “on an old Apple Mac, my first computer”, a treatment for a film on his life. However a friend suggested it might be better if Sean “did something more personal” with it. As a result the show Message Of Peace was born.
The show traces O’Reilly’s colourful life as a rebel, prisoner, campaigner, and poet, through stories, slow airs, jogs, and songs by John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Bobby Sands, and Oscar Wilde. Also included is Little John Nee’s song ‘Wee Moroccans’ and songs from Sean’s own pen.
“O’Reilly just fascinates me,” says Sean. “He predicted that the US would one day have a black president. He foresaw a united states of Europe, he campaigned for the rights of Native Americans in the 1880s when most people regarded them as ‘vermin’, he campaigned for the rights of African-Americans, and against anti-Semitism.
“He was a newspaper editor in Boston and during an Orange parade there, there was a riot in which many people died. O’Reilly wrote about it in his newspaper and he lacerated both sides - and remember he was a Catholic and a Republican.”
Sean considers Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ appropriate given O’Reilly’s crusading stance as a civil rights campaigner. Bobby Sands’ ‘The Woman Cried’ is included as it references a man who scuppered a Fenian plot in which O’Reilly was involved.
“I set Bobby Sands’ poem to music years ago,” say Sean. “O’Reilly joined The Fenians in 1863. He then joined the British cavalry. About one-third of the British army at that time were Irishmen. The Fenians wanted to infiltrate them and cause a rebellion but it was foiled by an informer and the song mentions the informer.”
Sean also feels that John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’ was an obvious choice for the show. “O’Reilly was often referred to as a ‘working class hero’,” he says. “The forthcoming album will have a ‘Parental Advisory’ sticker on it as Mr Lennon uses the F word twice and I’m not about to sabotage the song.”
Sean has already performed the show in the States where it, and indeed O’Reilly’s message, received a great reception - which is the point Sean is trying to get across with Message Of Peace.
“I performed the show at a festival in Oregon and afterwards a woman leaped onto the stage, took me by the hand, and said ‘At last, somebody is saying something!’” says Sean. “I never got a reaction like that before. O’Reilly was so broadminded and ahead of his time. What he said is as relevant now as when it was first published. I’m trying to bring that message into modern times and become O’Reilly’s conscience for the 21st century.”
For tickets contact the festival box office, Merchants Road, 091 - 566577. Tickets are also available through www.galwayartsfestival.com