John Keegan, Writer, Poet and Story Teller.  1816-1849

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.  (Obituaries)


The portrait of St. Peter which inspired 'The Dihreoch's Legacy.' Grantstown lake, 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 readers. 

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 years -

“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 education. 

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.