O'REILLY, Dowell Philip (1865-1923)


O'REILLY, Dowell Philip (1865-1923)
poet and short story writer
was born at Sydney on 18 July 1865. His father, the Rev. Thomas O'Reilly, was a well known clergyman of the Church of England, who came of a family with many military and naval associations. (For an appreciation of Canon O'Reilly see Worshipful Masters, by A. B. Piddington.) He married twice, his second wife being a Miss Smith who came from a well-educated and artistic family. Their son, Dowell O'Reilly, was educated at Sydney Grammar School, and when his father died he assisted his mother in keeping a preparatory school for boys at Parramatta. In 1884 O'Reilly published a small volume, Australian Poems, by D. and in 1888 a larger volume of verse, A "Pedlar's Pack". Both books are now extremely rare. It has been stated that the author being disappointed at the want of success of the second volume destroyed most of the copies.
In 1894 O'Reilly was elected a member of the legislative assembly for Parramatta and sat for four years. He moved the first motion in favour of women's suffrage carried in the New South Wales parliament, but was defeated at the 1898 election. He became a master at his old school, the Sydney Grammar School, and continued there for 11 years. In 1910 he again stood for parliament, as a Labour candidate, but was defeated, and shortly afterwards obtained a position in the federal public service. In 1913 he published Tears and Triumph, an expanded short story rather than a novel, in which O'Reilly shows a penetrating knowledge of the feminine view-point. It is a tragic little story, simply and beautifully told, with a running commentary by the author on the philosophy of sex. The book stands alone in Australian literature. O'Reilly had married in 1895 Eleanor McCulloch and there were three children of the marriage. During his wife's illness, which lasted for many years, O'Reilly had a difficult and lonely life, which was brightened by a correspondence with a cousin in England whom he had met when she was a child. His father had taken him on a visit to Europe when he was 14. His cousin was too young at the time to have any memory of him, but after the death of O'Reilly's wife in August 1914, the letters gradually developed into love-letters and in June 1917 they were married. These letters were collected, and published in 1927 under the title of Dowell O'Reilly From his Letters, an illuminating revelation of his interesting personality. In 1920 O'Reilly made a small collection of his short stories from the Sydney Bulletin and other periodicals, and published them under the name of Five Corners. He died after a short illness at Leura in the Blue Mountains on 5 November 1923. He was survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter, afterwards Mrs Eleanor Dark, well known as a leading Australian novelist.
O'Reilly was witty, kindly, generously tolerant, and sensitive. Though he felt the drudgery of his days as a schoolmaster he had a good understanding of boys and gained their affection. Not long before his death he wrote of himself: "I am a failure; I have attempted many things, writing, teaching, politics, drifted along, done just enough to live." This feeling of frustration and failure was characteristic, but the verdict of posterity may be different. His early verse was seldom of more than average quality, but the little selection published in 1924 with Tears and Triumph and Five Corners, under the title of The Prose and Verse of Dowell O'Reilly, shows him to be a poet, however limited in output and scope. Five Corners contains some of the best Australian short stories ever written. "His Photo on the wall" is a masterpiece in its mingling of humour and tragedy, and his beautiful little sketch, "Twilight" is a triumph in economy of means. It must always be a regret that O'Reilly wrote so little, but this largely arose from his keen self-criticism. No pains were too great to be devoted to the work he was doing, and his sense of artistry would not permit the use of a clumsy or inadequate word. To some degree this applied also to his talk, but he lacked a Boswell, and the charm of his conversation can never be recaptured.
Foreword, Dowell O'Reilly from his Letters; Preface, The Prose and Verse of Dowell O'Reilly; J. Le Gay Brereton, Knocking Round, pp. 2 and 60; The Sydney Morning Herald, 7 November 1923; The Bookman, September 1928.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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