|John Keegan 1816 - 1849
John Keegan, writer, poet and storyteller, was born in Killeaney near the village of Shanahoe in Co. Laois (then Queen’s County) in 1816 in the home of his uncle, Thomas Moloney, a local hedge-school teacher, with whom his parents lived. He had only one brother, Peter, who died at an early age. Keegan was educated by his uncle who established a school in the sacristy of Shanahoe chapel around 1822 prior to the erection of a school in the village in 1830.
|The portrait of St.
Peter which inspired 'The Dihreoch's Legacy.'
Ballacolla, Co. Laois. Keegan's short story 'The Fairy's
Revenge' is based on the origins of the lake.
In the early years of the twentieth century Canon John O’Hanlon, a Dublin-based Parish Priest of Laois origin, researched Keegan’s life and collected many of his writings. O’Hanlon died before his work was complete but the material which he had assembled was published in 1907 through the efforts of D.J. O’ Donoghue, a Dublin-based librarian in a book entitled Legends and Poems by John Keegan.
O’Hanlon’s research included the interviewing of people living in Keegan’s native place who remembered him from their youth. From this source we learn that Keegan was sacristan in Shanahoe chapel, that he played a trombone in a local band, that he assisted his uncle in teaching at Shanahoe School and that he acted as clerk to one of the Famine Relief Committees in the county in the mid-1840s. In the absence of documentary evidence, however, the accuracy of these claims cannot be verified.
From the age of twenty-one Keegan’s writings began to be published, firstly in the Leinster Express which gave him a foothold on the literary ladder. Several of his contributions to the Leinster Express were submitted under the pseudonym Steelpen, including a six-part series entitled Tales of the Rockites which recorded the activities in the Laois and adjoining counties in the 1830s of a secret agrarian society known as the Rockites. Referring, after Keegan’s death, to this series the Leinster Express wrote: The violators of the law were startled by the picture drawn of themselves by the hand of the master. They recoiled from the hideousness and infamy with which the pen of the poet was branding their brows; and the misguided peasantry of the locality were brought to a sense of the enormity of their nocturnal movements, more by the fervid preaching of one who sprung up amongst themselves, than by all the cumbrous machinery of Law Courts.
A significant feature in Keegan’s Tales of the Rockites was his use of the term shoneen. The Oxford English Dictionary, which defines shoneen as ‘one who puts on superior airs’, or ‘a would-be gentleman’, credits Keegan with introducing the term to modern vocabulary in that series.
The Dublin University Magazine began publishing Keegan’s short stories from 1839. In 1841 the Irish Penny Journal carried two tales, one of which was The Boccough Ruadh, A Tradition of Poorman’s Bridge. In the period 1843-1845 The Nation published four of Keegan’s poems, some of which featured strong nationalist themes. In one of them, entitled Devil May Care, he used the (anglicised) term shin fane which he defined in a footnote as ‘ourselves’ or ‘ourselves alone’, the earliest known example of this expression in a political context.
The bulk of Keegan’s prose works was published from 1845 to 1847 in Dolman’s Magazine, a Catholic monthly magazine. His main contribution to this publication was a series entitled Gleanings In The Green Isle under the pen-name The Man In The Green Cloak. This took the form of ten letters which recounted his adventures on arriving back in Dublin following a trip to London. Also published in Dolman’s Magazine were Sonnet on Sickness, one of Keegan’s best poems, and The Dying Mother’s Lament, a powerful poem based on the starvation of a mother and her three children during the Great Famine.
The Irish National Magazine published three of Keegan’s poems in 1846 including his most famous work, Caoch The Piper, based on the true account of the visit, in Keegan’s childhood, of a blind piper, Caoch O’ Leary, to Keegan’s home and the piper’s return visit twenty years later.
The Irishman commenced publication in January 1849 and Keegan contributed poetry to it from its first edition in which The Holly And Ivy Girl appeared. At that time, the jailed Young Ireland leaders were awaiting deportation and Keegan penned two poems, To T.F.M. and Tomorrow, which attempted to raise their spirits and rally support for their nationalist aspirations. The Irishman carried Keegan’s last known poem, The Southern Pauper To His Priest, on 19 May, 1849. In a literary career of only twelve years, Keegan’s published works amounted to over fifty poems and more than twenty prose pieces.
Keegan was acquainted with many prominent figures of the mid-nineteenth century such as Charles Gavan Duffy, editor of The Nation; Edward Walsh, poet and schoolteacher; James Clarence Mangan, one of the most important poets of nineteenth century Ireland; and John O’Daly, a Dublin-based bookseller and publisher. Still surviving is a series of ten personal letters written by John Keegan to John O’Daly in 1846. Significantly, these letters are a source of vital biographical information as they record the events leading up to, and immediately following, his marriage to local girl, Brigid Collins in August 1846. The marriage, to which his family and friends objected, was undertaken hastily and seemed to have been influenced by O’Daly’s false indication to Keegan that he, too, was on the verge of marriage. Keegan’s marriage failed after a few months, and by May 1847 he had moved alone to Dublin where, according to O’Hanlon, he took up a post in journalism. One child, a daughter named Bridget, born in November 1847 was the only issue of the unhappy marriage. She remained in Shanahoe all her life and died
a spinster in1910.
Towards the end of 1848 a cholera epidemic spread to Ireland from Britain and Keegan contracted the disease. The South Dublin Poor Law Union erected sheds to receive cholera patients on the site of the present St. James’s Hospital. Keegan was admitted here around May 1849 and he died in the early hours of Saturday, 30 June, 1849 at the age of thirty-three. Later that same day he was interred at Glasnevin Cemetery.
From: The Irishman Saturday 14 July, 1849.
Another son of genius is gone. Death is becoming an epicure, and selects
the choicest victims. It is not many weeks since we closed the grave
over James Clarence Mangan; his friend and fellow poet, John Keegan, did
not tarry long behind him.
John Keegan was well known to the public by the initials ‘J.K.’
which were subscribed to many of the best poems in the columns of the
Nation, and in our own. He was a poor man, and had no property but his
intellect. In our time, that is a miserable patrimony. These are the
days of ‘Railway Kings,’ and men have more faith, as Mitchel
remarked, in scrip than in scripture. We have returned to the iron age,
and the poet is regarded as an extra man. Poetry is surplus, and the
demand does not equal the supply. Poor Keegan knew this well; he had
bitter experience of its truth.
He was a contributor to many of the periodicals, and the best articles
which appeared in the pages of Dolman’s Magazine were written by him.
From the publication of our first number he was connected with our
staff, and few of our readers will fail to remember his sweet strains.
His nature was purely Irish. He was one of the people, and understood
them well. There were no legends, familiar to the peasantry, with which
he was not acquainted. His poems were thoroughly idiomatic, and racy of
the soil. They were the Irish heart translated and set to music. They
touched us more than the polished lines of drawing-room bards, because
they did not consecrate affectation, but showed us ourselves. The charm
of his poetry was its characteristic simplicity. Like the mistress of
Horace - simplex munditiis - it did not require the gewgaws of fancy, it
was plain and exquisite in its truth. At the time of his death he was
preparing a volume of tales for the press; he died before they were
completed. Even in a fragmentary state, the works of such a man deserve
publication, and we hope to see them before long in the hands of our
Keegan’s character, like his poetry, was remarkable for its
simplicity. He was as religious as Ireland, and, doubtless, before this,
has received his reward. May he rest in peace.
From the Leinster Express,
Saturday 7 July, 1849.
Death Of John Keegan, The Poet.
“Star after star decays.”
Last week it was our melancholy task to record the death of Clarence
Mangan, the gifted translator of Lays of Many Lands. This week, with
deep sorrow, we announce the death of John Keegan, who for originality
and brilliancy of Poetic genius, had few equals in Ireland. The
melancholy occurrence took place at Dublin early on the morning of last
Saturday. The child of song, like his glorious brother in the tuneful
art, fell a victim in early manhood to the ravaging effects of cholera.
His mortal remains now rest in Glasnevin Cemetery.
John Keegan was a native of Ossory, in the Queen’s County, a place
fruitful in germs of poetic genius amongst the peasant class. He was the
child of humble circumstances; he was self educated, even in his younger
“He lisped in numbers, and the numbers came.”
But he had fallen on evil days. His great originality of genius was
sufficiently appreciated; and cold calculating mortals who could not
understand the Divinity which stirred within him, turned a dull ear to
the charmer, left that most helpless of all created beings - the
luxuriant vine-tree of the human forest - the self taught poet, to droop
if not to perish without support. He now sleeps well and soundly after
life’s short fitful fever; but the tones of his lyre shall long find
an echo through the green vales of Ossory, amid the mountain scenery of
Upperwoods, by Nore’s winding river, and by the gushing fountains of
Tentore. His ‘wood-notes wild’ will be sung in a far-foreign land by
the Queen’s County Emigrant, when at winter’s eve he gathers his
household around the blazing log, to indulge the heart in the sad luxury
of home recollections. Then poor Keegan’s simple melodies will flood
the ‘untravelled heart,’ with memories of the dear old land, and
draw forth from the deep fountains of feeling, tears as sacred as those
dropped by the Recording Angel, over the weaknesses of human nature.
With the effusions of this singularly gifted ‘pupil of nature,’ the
readers of the Leinster Express cannot but be acquainted. About ten
years ago he commenced his literary career under the signature of STEEL
PEN, by a series of tales which appeared in this journal from time to
time. They contained graphic and truthful delineations of the
combinations which eventuated in the spread of agrarian outrages
throughout the Queen’s and the adjoining counties, and which
particularly cast a dark spot on the fair fame of Upper Ossory. These
tales were not without beneficial effect. The violators of the law were
startled by the picture drawn of themselves by the hand of a master.
They recoiled from the hideousness and infamy with which the pen of the
poet was branding their brows; and the misguided peasantry of the
locality were brought to a sense of the enormity of their nocturnal
movements, more by the fervid preaching of one who sprung up amongst
themselves, than by all the cumbrous machinery of Law Courts.
Of his debut in the Leinster Express, Mr. Keegan always spoke in terms
of enthusiasm and gratitude. It was the first rung in the ladder of his
Literary Career. It was the Oasis in the desert of his boyhood. It was
the green spot in memory’s waste, which was never without verdure and
sunshine. Subsequently he became a contributor to the Irish Penny
Journal, and to the Dublin University Magazine. The latter publication
paid liberally, and poor Keegan felt as if he moved in some higher
sphere. The Nation Newspaper was established. It seemed to be a Temple
opened for the reception of the Poetic Genius of Ireland; and poor
Keegan became one of the most ardent worshippers at its shrine. Who has
not read the Nation? Who has not pored over “the Spirit of the
Nation” and the “Ballad Poetry of Ireland?” In these the subject
of this brief memoir held an exalted position. Never did there exist a
master spirit possessing more power over the young heart of Ireland than
C. Gavan Duffy; and in his numerous choral band he had not a more
enthusiastic or high-souled votary than John Keegan. In 1843 and 44 he
became a contributor to Dolman’s Magazine. His Irish Legends, entitled
‘Gleanings in the Green Isle by the Man in the Green Cloak’ met with
a ready reception in that influencial periodical, and was received
favorably by the critical department of the Press of the Kingdom. The
Gleanings were rich and racy, and in the author’s happiest and most
humorous style. In one of them is to be found a beautiful Fairy Legend
with reference to the Lake of Grantstown, in Grantstown Manor, near
Ballacolla, now the residence of Richard Wilson Fitzpatrick, Esq.
Latterly, Mr. Keegan was engaged in a work entitled Legends of the Round
Table of Ossory. This he intended to publish by subscription, and to
dedicate to the Right Hon. John Wilson Fitzpatrick, M.P. for the
Queen’s County; he had a letter written and prepared for post,
soliciting the Right Hon. gentleman’s permission to dedicate the
Legends of the Round Table to him; but, alas, for human hopes and
earthly aspirations, the angel of death stepped in and encompassed him
with its wings. He now rests from his labors; and though he has gone
down to ‘the house prepared for all the living,’ his memory shall
not perish. His name shall be treasured by the Genius of his country,
and in other days it will be spoken of, and his writings referred to as
another proof of the triumphs of native talent, notwithstanding the
freezing influence of chill penury, or the absence of a liberal
It is hoped that some person competent to the task will undertake the
revision and publication of the Legends of the Round Table of Ossory,
and carry out the author’s desire in its dedication.