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Thomas O'Reilly (1819–1881)

by Neil O'Reilly

This article was published:

Thomas O'Reilly (1819-1881), Anglican clergyman, was born at Douglas, Isle of Man, and baptized on 11 December 1819, son of Thomas O'Reilly, Irish army officer, and his wife Susannah, née O'Brien. In the early 1840s he went to Sydney with his widowed mother and sister and was befriended by N. D. Stenhouse. Trained as a surveyor he worked in the Port Phillip District supplementing his income by gathering wattle bark. In 1847 he offered himself for the Anglican ministry. After training from Bishop Tyrrell's chaplain at Morpeth in the Newcastle diocese he was made deacon on 24 September 1848 and sent as curate to Rev. John Cross at Port Macquarie. He was ordained priest on 22 September 1850. At Port Macquarie on 15 December 1853 he married Gordina (d.1860), daughter of Major Archibald Clunes Innes. When Cross died in 1858 O'Reilly became incumbent of St Thomas's. He had splendid physique and rowed many miles to visit his parishioners.

In 1861-64 O'Reilly was curate at St Philip's, Church Hill, Sydney. On 8 April 1863 he married Rosa Smith and next year was given charge of St Andrew's wooden pro-cathedral. He supervised the building of the new cathedral and increased the congregation from 150 to more than 700. In 1868 when the stone cathedral was consecrated he was appointed a canon and had charge of its parish. On 1 July 1869 he became incumbent of St Philip's. He installed new lights in the church at a cost of £133, added a large new schoolroom, and in 1871 managed to extract the parish registers for 1826-39 from H. Kerrison James. O'Reilly had much mechanical aptitude and 'built a first-rate boat for his boys with his own hands'; in 1874 when a new organ was bought for £885 he trusted no one else to carry the great pipes and built it into the organ chamber himself. In 1875 additions to the parsonage were completed for £1850.

A vigorous Protestant, O'Reilly was averse to ritual but eschewed Orangeism. He rigidly practised the fourth commandment and would allow nothing hot to be eaten in his home on Sundays, banned Monday's Sydney Morning Herald as it was printed on the Sabbath and walked to all Sunday appointments. Ardent, tender-hearted and a bold preacher 'in style a Boanerges', he denounced the liquor traffic and those engaged in it. Incensed by worldliness, he denounced horse-racing in the cathedral in the presence of the governor, Sir Hercules Robinson, who as a devotee of the sport vowed never to enter the cathedral again if O'Reilly was preaching.

In February 1879 ill health forced O'Reilly to take a year's leave and he visited the Isle of Man with his family. When he returned to St Philip's his health had not improved and he died aged 62 at Harborville, Parramatta, on 8 December 1881 and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. He was survived by two sons of his first wife, by his second wife, to whom he left his estate of £3000, and by their two sons and two daughters. Their second son Dowell Philip became a writer and member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. Dowell's daughter is the novelist Eleanor Dark.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Houison, A Short History of St Philip's Church (Syd, 1910)
  • A. B. Piddington, Worshipful Masters (Syd, 1929)
  • Australian Churchman (Sydney), 22 Dec 1881
  • manuscript catalogue (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Neil O'Reilly, 'O'Reilly, Thomas (1819–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Douglas, Isle of Man, England


8 December, 1881 (aged ~ 62)
Parramatta, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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