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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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O'Reilly, Dowell Philip (1865–1923)

by Michael Sharkey

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Dowell Philip O'Reilly (1865-1923), author, was born on 18 July 1865 in Sydney, younger son and second of four children of Rev. Thomas O'Reilly, Anglican clergyman, and his second wife Rosa, née Smith; he had two half-brothers. He was educated at Sydney Grammar School and in 1879 with his family visited Britain and his father's birthplace, Douglas, Isle of Man. His father died in 1881. Next year his mother, whose sister Julia had married Professor Charles Badham, opened Hayfield, a preparatory school for boys at Prospect; her sons Thomas and Dowell assisted her. As 'D', O'Reilly published a small volume, Australian Poems, in 1884, and a larger volume of verse, A Pedlar's Pack, in 1888; its sales were so disappointing that he destroyed all the copies he could locate.

At Parramatta, O'Reilly belonged to the Alfred Cricket Club and played for Central Cumberland against visiting English teams in 1886 and December 1887. He served as an ensign and was commissioned second lieutenant in November 1888 in the Parramatta Volunteer Rifles, transferring to the reserve on 31 March 1898 as a lieutenant. At St Andrew's Cathedral he married Eleanor Grace McCulloch on 20 December 1895. He had been elected to the Legislative Assembly for Parramatta in 1894 as a free trader and supporter of (Sir) George Reid. Next year he carried a motion in favour of female suffrage. Defeated twice in 1898, O'Reilly became a master at Sydney Grammar School where he remained until 1909.

From the early 1890s O'Reilly had contributed poems and short stories to the Bulletin and other periodicals. While attending evening lectures at the University of Sydney in 1889 he had met John Le Gay Brereton, with whom he went on a walking tour of Tasmania in 1894, and the poet Christopher Brennan who became a close friend. With R. F. Irvine, Brereton, Brennan and others, O'Reilly was involved in the short-lived Australian Magazine in 1899, and later belonged to the Casual Club. His friendship with Brennan underwent many vicissitudes particularly after O'Reilly published 'The Symbolist' in the Bulletin (30 June 1900) in which he taunted 'Cyrus Brown, The Poet pale of Sydney Town'.

A friend of W. M. Hughes, O'Reilly contested the State seat of Parramatta in 1910, this time for the Labor Party. Defeated, he joined the Commonwealth Treasury, working in its Sydney land tax branch. Early in 1913 Hughes asked O'Reilly to cable his brother-in-law A. B. Piddington to discover his views on States' rights; after satisfying Hughes, Piddington accepted a seat on the High Court bench but quickly resigned, believing his judicial integrity had been impaired. The incident, which led to estrangement between O'Reilly and his sister Marion Piddington, was revived by Piddington during an acrimonious election campaign against Hughes in December 1922 when O'Reilly defended his own role in the Sydney Morning Herald.

O'Reilly continued to contribute to sundry periodicals and in 1913 published Tears and Triumph, an expanded tragic short story, set in Sydney's western suburbs. The book contains an interpolated outline of his suffragette philosophy and remains witty and lucid fiction: it has never been easily categorized, although early claimed as a masterpiece in a new genre.

During his wife's last illness O'Reilly wrote to Marie Rose Beatrice (Mollie) Miles, a cousin whom he had met in England in 1879. After Eleanor's death in 1914, their correspondence developed into love-letters. Mollie came to Sydney in 1917 and they were married at St Mathias' Church, Paddington, on 13 June. In 1920 O'Reilly published a selection of his short stories from the Bulletin and other periodicals as Five Corners; it contains some brilliant and polished vignettes of wartime Australia, including 'His Photo on the Wall' and 'The Ta-Ta Woman', as well as humoresques and travel sketches.

O'Reilly died of cerebro-vascular disease and pneumonia at Leura on 5 November 1923 and was buried with Anglican rites in Blackheath cemetery. His wife and two sons and a daughter of his first marriage survived him. His daughter Eleanor (1901-85) married Dr Eric Payten Dark, M.C., and became a well-known novelist. O'Reilly's estate amounted to £158.

Some of his most remarkable crafted works in fiction and most memorable poetry was published as The Prose and Verse of Dowell O'Reilly by Angus & Robertson Ltd in 1924. O'Reilly was unusually self-critical of his work. Generously tolerant and witty, he had a whimsical manner. Brereton noted that 'even when he did not seize advantage for a quip, his lifted brows and laughing eyes were marvellously expressive'. Other friends included Justice (Sir) David Ferguson and Lionel Lindsay. In 1927 Mollie published his letters to her as Dowell O'Reilly from his Letters (London). They contain insights into his views on politics, religion, his method of writing and cultural matters including the cinema.

Select Bibliography

  • J. C. Wharton (ed), The Jubilee History of Parramatta (Parramatta, 1911)
  • J. Le Gay Brereton, Knocking Round (Syd, 1930)
  • F. T. Macartney, Australian Literary Essays (Syd, 1957)
  • A. Grove Day, Eleanor Dark (Boston, 1976)
  • L. N. Cantrell (ed), Bards, Bohemians and Bookmen (Brisb, 1976)
  • A. Clark, Christopher Brennan, a Critical Biography (Melb, 1980)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Nov 1923
  • Bulletin, 8 Nov 1923
  • Brereton papers (University of Sydney Library and State Library of New South Wales)
  • O'Reilly papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Piddington papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Michael Sharkey, 'O'Reilly, Dowell Philip (1865–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 29 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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