O’REILLY, JAMES, lawyer and politician, b. in Westport, County Mayo, Ireland, 1823, son of Peter O’Reilly; m. Mary Jane Redmond in November 1850; d. at Kingston, Ont., 15 May 1875.
James O’Reilly came to Upper Canada in 1832 with his father, who settled in Belleville and there became a merchant before moving to Kingston in 1847. After attending the Hastings County grammar school, James began the study of law with C. O. Benson of Belleville. He continued his studies first with John Ross, then with John Willoughby Crawford and John Hawkins Hagarty*, and was thus introduced to important public men during his training. Called to the bar of Upper Canada in 1847, O’Reilly moved to Kingston. He was a bencher of the Law Society of Upper Canada, became a qc in 1864, and in 1870 was admitted to the bar of Quebec. O’Reilly participated in several spectacular criminal cases and, in 1868, successfully prosecuted Patrick James Whelan*, the assassin of D’Arcy McGee*. This trial, a cause célèbre, in which John Hillyard Cameron acted for the defence, revealed O’Reilly as an able, energetic, and vociferous attorney.
Religion largely explains O’Reilly’s political career. President of the Kingston St Patrick’s Society, he was an important Catholic layman whose close rapport with the bishop of Kingston, Edward John Horan, and extensive law practice made him influential throughout eastern Ontario. In 1872, when Catholic leaders insisted on a greater political influence for Catholics, Sir John A. Macdonald* encouraged Catholic Conservatives to run for parliament. O’Reilly responded and was elected mp for South Renfrew in 1872. His term in parliament was uneventful, and in 1874 he declined to seek re-election, claiming that politics interfered too much with his law practice.
O’Reilly served as director of the Kingston and Pembroke Railway. He was an alderman in Kingston from 1850 to 1855, and was its recorder, 1865–69. The town honoured him for raising a militia company during the Trent crisis in 1861. He was anxious to become a judge, and but for his premature death in 1875 he would have preceded John O’Connor* as the first Irish Catholic appointed to an Ontario superior court judgeship.
PAC, MG 26, A (Macdonald papers), 188, 194, 204, 228, 339; B (Mackenzie papers), ser.2, 1; MG 27, 1, 117 (James O’Reilly papers). PAO, Sir Alexander Campbell papers, 1872. Ottawa Citizen, 1875. Trial of Patrick J. Whelan for the murder of the Hon. Thos. D’Arcy McGee . . . (Ottawa, 1868). Can. parl. comp., 1873. N. F. Davin, Irishman in Canada. Swainson, “Personnel of politics.”