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O’REILLY, HUGH (he also signed O’Reilley, O’Reily, O’Riley, Reilly, Riely), Roman Catholic priest and polemicist; b. c. 1794 in County Meath (Republic of Ireland); d. 22 or 23 June 1859 in North East Margaree, N.S.

Educated at the Irish College in Rome and at the Sorbonne, Hugh O’Reilly was ordained in Paris in 1819 or 1820. Although he served in Ireland for 15 years, nothing is known of him there other than Bishop William Walsh’s later comment that in his homeland O’Reilly was generally regarded as insane and had had a violent quarrel with his bishop. He came to Nova Scotia in 1835–36 and had charge of Liverpool and Caledonia, Queens County, until the summer of 1841, when he took, charge of Pictou County.

In his second posting, O’Reilly, who boarded in New Glasgow with a parishioner and held services in his home, had care of a large mission which included River John, Pictou, Albion Mines (Stellarton), New Glasgow, and Merigomish; he also ministered to the Micmacs of Pictou County. His responsibilities were lightened in 1850 when the town of Pictou and the northern part of Pictou County were transferred to the care of the Reverend Alexander MacSween. During O’Reilly’s ministry, St Mary’s Church, later renamed Our Lady of Lourdes, was built at Albion Mines. After leaving Pictou in 1858, O’Reilly had charge of North East Margaree on Cape Breton Island, where he died soon after his arrival that October. His headstone, besides giving Eugenius (the common Latinization of Hugh) as his Christian name, indicates that he died on 23 June 1859; an obituary gives the date of death as 22 June.

The tall and husky O’Reilly was a gifted linguist, but was singularly tactless. Residing in the Scottish Presbyterian town of Pictou, he kept three dogs and named them Luther, Calvin, and Knox. When he left Pictou after 17 years, his last words to his flock were, “You’re rotten!” His love of a good fight is best revealed in an internecine dispute that afflicted his own church. During the 1830s relations between Bishop William Fraser, a native of Scotland, and the Catholics of Halifax, almost completely of Irish origin, deteriorated steadily. The Haligonians claimed that the bishop, who resided in Antigonish, was neglecting them and asked for more clergy in the town. Reluctantly the bishop agreed. The new priests, Lawrence Joseph Dease and Richard Baptist O’Brien, had been trained in Irish seminaries and thus felt closer to their countrymen than Fraser could. They were unacceptable to the bishop, however, and a power struggle of sorts developed. Most of the Irish Catholics of Halifax took sides against Bishop Fraser and his vicar in Halifax, the Reverend John Loughnan. O’Reilly threw his support behind Fraser. Under the pseudonym of Hibernicus, he published a series of letters in the Pictou Observer from 21 Dec. 1841 to 10 May 1842 in which he defended Fraser and attacked the Halifax Irish.

O’Reilly’s reasoning was convoluted and tended to be repetitious. Its most outstanding quality was the generosity with which it employed name-calling, a practice of other clergy in this quarrel as well. Hibernicus claimed that the Irish were pretending they wanted the bishop to live in Halifax, when really it was the fact of his being a Scot that they disliked. He flayed the Haligonians by comparing them to the Pharisees for treachery and falsehood: “Since . . . the Scribes and Pharisees entered into a council to betray Christ, a more infamous gang was never assembled in the house of God than the leading Schismatics in the Capital of Nova Scotia.” The Halifax Irish were, in O’Reilly’s words, “the insolent, upstart, and low-bred ci-devant aristocracy,” and “nothing more than mere coxcombs.”

The new priests sent to Halifax came in for their share of O’Reilly’s wrath. The Franciscan Dease, “venerable son of the lowly and humble St. Francis,” moved about “in his easy car, clad in soft garments, so unlike those of his order.” According to Hibernicus, Dease had followed up his apparent un-Franciscan behaviour by becoming “a willing aggressor on the episcopal rights” of Fraser. As for O’Brien, who had become principal of the newly founded St Mary’s Seminary, Hibernicus sarcastically said that the people of Halifax “fell down before him, and worshipped with all the homage of heartfelt veneration and respect.” O’Brien’s school was accused of favouring Irish lads over Scots and of using corporal punishment unfairly. “We also fretted much to hear how the youths of the humble classes were treated, and how they were, from fear of the cat with nine tails induced to run wild through the country in all directions.” All in all, Hibernicus considered the school “a Temple of Dunces” headed by “a mere nobody or nothing” (O’Brien) and “an ecclesiastical drone” (Dease).

Hibernicus suggested in his collected letters that Fraser had been a willing party to his partisanship on the bishop’s behalf. Thus, he was able to quote from correspondence received by Fraser from Archbishop Daniel Murray of Dublin and could ask his readers to send in their letters of support to the bishop. The dispute was finally resolved in 1844, when the diocese was split in a manner which left Walsh responsible for Halifax.

The historical significance of Hugh O’Reilly, as Hibernicus, is slight, and his writings seem to have served no purpose at the time beyond inflaming an already troubled situation. He was one of those delicately balanced individuals who are often found on the edges of controversial situations: able neither to start nor to stop the quarrelling, but revelling in the middle of it by stoking the flames of passion and argumentation.

Terrence M. Punch

The letters written by Hugh O’Reilly under the pseudonym Hibernicus, originally published in the Observer (Pictou, N.S.), were also issued collectively as The letters of Hibernicus: extracts from the pamphlet entitled “A report of the committee of St. Mary’s, Halifax, N.S.,” and a review of the same (Pictou, 1842).

St Gregory’s Roman Catholic Church (Liverpool, N.S.), Records of the parishes of Liverpool and Caledonia. Stella Maris Roman Catholic Church (Pictou), Records of St Patrick’s Church. J. M. Cameron, About New Glasgow (New Glasgow, N.S., 1962), 5758. A. A. Johnston, Hist. of Catholic Church in eastern N.S., vol.2. T. M. Punch, “The Irish in Halifax, 18361871: a study in ethnic assimilation” (ma thesis, Dalhousie Univ., Halifax, 1977), 12238.

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Cite This Article

Terrence M. Punch, “O’REILLY, HUGH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 8, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/o_reilly_hugh_8E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/o_reilly_hugh_8E.html
Author of Article:   Terrence M. Punch
Title of Article:   O’REILLY, HUGH
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   February 8, 2023