Cracking O’Reilly

Dr Kate Gregory

THE 2022 Wild Goose Lecture will explore a book of poetry with a mysterious coded cover by Irish Fenian, author and activist John Boyle O’Reilly, written during his time as a political prisoner in Western Australia in 1868. 

The annual event will be held at the WA Maritime Museum in Fremantle by State Library of WA Battye historian Kate Gregory on Sunday October 16 at 3pm. 

It’s organised by Fenians Fremantle and Freedom Inc to acknowledge the impact the republicans had on Irish, Australian, and American culture.


The Hougoumont, the last convict ship sent to Australia, carried 62 Irish Fenians and arrived in Fremantle in January 1868.

On their 90-day journey, O’Reilly and John Flood published a hand-written newspaper titled The Wild Goose, which the former read aloud every Saturday evening to his fellow Fenians. 

Alongside the Wild Goose, O’Reilly wrote a book of poetry, bound in vellum with stenography shorthand code written across the front and back cover. Upon opening a clasp, a dedication to Father Patrick McCabe is revealed, a Bunbury priest who assisted in O’Reilly’s escape to America in 1869. 

John Boyle O’Reilly

Donated in 1989 to the state library, the book was verified through research, leading to the partial cracking of the stenography code by archivist Gillian O’Mara, which confirmed O’Reilly as the author. 

The partial findings also revealed the code was not a political message, but rather a love poem. 

Dr Gregory says O’Reilly’s book is one of her favourite pieces within the library’s collection, and she is excited to unveil more. 

“I was really delighted to be asked to give the 2022 Wild Goose lecture on this book of poetry, and it’s lovely to be able to share it with the wider public,” she says. 

“I will be revealing the contents of this book and examining the course of its history, and it is a wonderful opportunity for me to delve into this important treasure of the state library, and to better understand its significance.”

Fenians Fremantle and Freedom chairperson Margo O’Byrne believes Dr Gregory’s lecture will provide a well-rounded overview of O’Reilly’s dedicated fight for the oppressed. 

“We are delighted to have Dr Gregory deliver this lecture. The state library’s ongoing research into the provenance of this special book, which contains some of O’Reilly’s unpublished poetry, gives us a great insight into his literary skill and his commitment to civil and human rights,” she says.

John Boyle O’Reilly’s book of poetry written while he was incarcerated in WA.

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