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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Dowell O'Reilly - teacher, politician, poet and author

What can we give in return
For her beauty and mystery
Of flowering forest, infinite plain,
Deep sky and distant mountain chain
And her triumphant sea,
Thundering old songs of liberty[1]

Dowell O’Reilly, better known perhaps as the father of author Eleanor Dark, was a schoolmaster turned parliamentarian and an author and poet in his own right. Dowell, born in Sydney on 18 July 1865, was the second of four children born to Anglican clergyman, Rev. Thomas O’Reilly and second wife Rosa (nee Smith).[2] He was educated at Sydney Grammar School and took up a teaching post at ‘Hayfield’ to assist his mother after his father died in 1881.[3]  It was there that he met Eleanor McCulloch – the music teacher - who he married in a quiet, almost secretive, ceremony on 28 December 1895.[4]  The bride’s parents and close friends were absent which, according to Barbara Brooks and Judith Clark caused ‘quite a stir’ when the union became common knowledge.[5]  Albert Bathurst Piddington, who a year later married Dowell’s sister Marion Louisa, was his best man. Piddington, like Dowell, had been educated at Sydney Grammar.

Marriage to Eleanor Grace McCulloch meant that he became the son-in-law of the controversial politician, Andrew Hardie McCulloch.  McCulloch is perhaps better known in the Blue Mountains as the owner of the - now derelict - cottage ‘Eurama’ located at Linden.  The ruins of the cottage are a familiar sight to road and rail traffic as they pass by today.
O’Reilly was also related to Dr Charles Badham, Professor of Classics at Sydney University, through Badham’s first marriage to Julia, sister to O’Reilly’s mother.[6] There is some speculation that Badham may have assisted O’Reilly’s mother when she opened ‘Hayfield’ as a preparatory school for boys at Parramatta.[7] An article in the Illustrated Sydney News in 1889, suggested that ‘Hayfield,’ presided over by Mrs. O’Reilly, was an efficient and comfortable school.[8]
Dowell and Eleanor had their first child, named for his father, in 1899.  Eleanor, named for her mother, was born in 1901, while Brian arrived in 1905.[9]  Dowell junior died in 1926, Brian married Norah Wilson and died at Wentworth Falls in 1985 in the same year as sister Eleanor (then Eleanor Dark), who died in Katoomba. 

In 1886/87, Dowell played cricket for Central Cumberland against the visiting English side, and in 1888, he was commissioned second lieutenant in the Parramatta Volunteer Rifles.[10] He transferred to the reserves in 1898. Dowell was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Parramatta in 1894, on a free trade ticket.  Shortly after, he moved a motion in parliament in favour of female suffrage.[11]  Dowell’s sympathies for female suffrage endeared him to Rose Scott; they became firm friends.[12]  In 1898 he returned to Sydney Grammar where he remained a master until 1909.[13]

Although his literary career began in the 1880s, it was somewhat less than spectacular.  He is known to have destroyed volumes of A Pedlar’s Pack, because sales of the book of verse had been inadequate.[14]  By the 1890s his literary career seemed to have picked up because he regularly contributed poems and short stories to the Bulletin and other publications.[15]  Night classes at the University of Sydney in 1889 brought him into contact with scholar and writer, John Le Gay Brereton, and the equally talented poet, author and scholar, Christopher Brennan.  One-time Professor of 
Economics, Robert Francis Irvine, was also a mutual friend.  The men were involved in publication of the short-lived Australian Magazine and were members of the Casual Club.[16]  

In 1910 Dowell contested the seat of Parramatta as a Labour Candidate and counted W.M. Hughes among his circle of friends.[17]  His friendship with Hughes was to have long term effects and was thought to have caused a rift with his brother-in-law, A.B. Piddington.[18]  A column in the Sydney Morning Herald called ‘Sydney Day by Day’ carried a very tongue in cheek view of Dowell. The article implied that he was somewhat of the ‘Bohemian order,’ and well thought of in ‘local literary’ circles.[19] The article went on to suggest that Dowell found favour among the ‘womenfolk of the State’ although ‘not an enormous number,’ who, by that time, had won the right to vote. 
The Herald correspondent suggested that Dowell had written some ‘acceptable poetry’ and his ‘crisp and appetising’ style was reflected in a letter sent to the paper regarding his feud with Piddington.[20]   Michael Roe suggested that while Piddington was intellectually gifted, he was of a turbulent disposition and prone to recurrent ‘displays of wayward emotion.’[21]  Thus, O’Reilly’s claim (see below) may have been correct. However, over recent years a darker side to this feud has been revealed by Helen O’Reilly and Marivic Wyndham, which had little to do with politics but more to do with personal issues within the family.[22]

Years of illness preceded the death of Eleanor Grace O’Reilly, who eventually died in 1914.[23] Dowell’s second wife, Marie Rose Beatrice (Mollie) Miles, who he married in 1917, was a cousin he met in England in 1879.[24] He continued contributing to periodicals and in 1913 published Tears and Triumph, that, while fiction, sketched an ‘outline of his suffragette philosophy.’[25]  The local studies collection in Springwood library hold several of Dowell O’Reilly’s works including Tears and Triumph, Fivecorners, The prose and verse of Dowell O’Reilly and Dowell O’Reilly from his letters.

Dowell died of pneumonia and vascular disease at Leura in 1923 and was buried in the cemetery at Blackheath. 
Pamela Smith


[1] Ist verse of Australia by Dowell O’Reilly.
[2] Michael Sharkey, 'O'Reilly, Dowell Philip (1865–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre
  of Biography, Australian National University,
  7917/text13773, accessed 21 September 2011.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Barbara Brooks & Judith Clark, Eleanor Dark, A Writers Life, Macmillan, 1998, p. 9.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Michael Sharkey.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Illustrated Sydney News, 3.10.1889, p. 19.
[9] NSW Births, Deaths and Marriage Indexes,
[10] Michael Sharkey.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Judith A. Allen, Rose Scott, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1994, p. 254.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Michael Sharkey.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Sydney Morning Herald, The High Court, Identity of Mr X, Attack on Mr Piddington, 15.12.1922, p. 11; The Argus, Appearance of “X” Remarkable Statement, “Mud Nine Years Old,” 15.12.1922, p. 11.  The incident referred to questions asked by Piddington about the part O’Reilly & Hughes played in his appointment to the High Court and his subsequent resignation because he felt compromised.  O’Reilly argued back that it was Piddington’s hysterical nature that caused him to resign. 
[19] Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney Day by Day, 16.12.1922, p. 30.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Michael Roe, ‘Piddington, Albert Bathurst (1862-1945),’ Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,
  7917/text13773, accessed 21 September 2011
[22] Abuse as a muse, The Sydney Morning Herald Blogs, Entertainment,, accessed 20.6.2011.
[23] Marivic Wyndham, ‘A world-proof life’: Eleanor Dark, a writer in her times, 1901-1985, UTSePress, Sydney, 2007, p. 26.
[24] Michael Sharkey.
[25] Ibid.

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