Sunday 4 December 2016

A poet held in highest esteem in America

Ulick O'Connor

Published 05/06/2016 | 02:30

John Boyle O'Reilly, 1844-1890.
John Boyle O'Reilly, 1844-1890.

It was when I started lecture tours in America on Irish poetry that I first recognised the high opinion that John Boyle O'Reilly's poetry was held in that country.

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In Boston, some people were able to quote him ad lib, a rare thing to find with Americans.

When I first met Rose Kennedy, President John F Kennedy's mother, to my surprise she was able to recite a few of Boyle O'Reilly's poems to me, which she did with great enthusiasm.

"I grew up with his verse," she told me.

It was me who was out of kilter when I learnt, to my surprise, from my American friends that a Boyle O'Reilly poem was in the Oxford Book of English Verse (1250-1900).

Not bad for a guy who had been sentenced to death by the British ascendancy for his participation in the Fenian Rising in 1867.

Exiled in Boston, Boyle O'Reilly succeeded in becoming a national figure.

The survivor of the poet soldier from the Irish Rebellion was a big draw. He wrote books on many subjects such as the ethics of boxing as well as compiling a large volume of The Poetry and Songs of Ireland, which became a standard work.

For a man with a killer punch his poetry could be surprisingly gentle. This poem below, which is in the Oxford Book of English Verse, is tiny and fragile - a beautiful piece of work.

A White Rose

The red rose whispers of passion,

And the white rose breathes of love;

O the red rose is a falcon,

And the white rose is a dove.

But I send you a cream-white rosebud

With a flush on its petal tips;

For the love that is purest and sweetest

Has a kiss of desire on the lips.

John Boyle O'Reilly, 1844-1890

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