The Poet of the Fenians

The remarkably short life of John Keegan Casey was full of lyrical rebellion and inspiring, seditious poetry. His pen was at least as dangerous as the sword, if not more so and it made him a warrior and a target at a remarkably young age. His best known work is “The Rising of the Moon“, which he reportedly penned at the tender age of just fifteen and it is still in heavy rotation to this day.

John Keegan Casey was born on this day in 1846 – right in the middle of the harshest years of An Gorta Mor – Ireland’s great hunger. He grew up on the starved island, watching as millions fled to other countries for food, while others struggled to survive. To say this had an effect on the young writer would be a vast understatement. His anger and disgust with the English government spilled out on to every page and he became a well-known voice for Irish independence. He spent a brief time teaching at the age of eighteen, but soon decided to move to Dublin to devote his life to Irish nationalism and writing. He joined the Fenian Brotherhood and became a popular speaker at many of their rallies. He published a poetry book called “A Wreath of Shamrocks” that included “the Rising of the Moon.” It quickly became a favorite rebel song sung to the tune of “The Wearing of the Green.” Keegan Casey also wrote many pieces for The Nation, a nationalist newspaper, under the name Leo. A few others were written under the pseudonym of Kileevan, presumably to keep himself safe from the already suspicious English authorities. His ruse did not work.

When the Fenians staged a rebellion in 1867, it was quickly put down by the English government and many were arrested. The twenty-one year old John Keegan Casey was one of those men who were picked up and thrown into prison, though any role he may or may not have played in the Rising itself was never determined. He spent eight months in jail even though no charges were ever brought against him. One of the conditions of his release was that he leave Ireland – but he ignored that rule and stayed under the radar in Dublin. He got married and continued writing and publishing under other names for a short time but his health was poor, due to the conditions he endured in prison. His body was unable to recover when he took a fall near O’Connell Bridge on St. Patrick’s Day in 1870 and Keegan Casey died from his injuries at the young age of twenty-four.

Somewhere between fifty and one hundred thousand people marched in his funeral procession to Glasnevin Cemetery. His gravestone is still in excellent condition and it includes all the markers of Irish Nationalism – a wolfhound, a harp and shamrocks are carved into the stone, along with a rising sun and a scroll that has part of “The Rising of the Moon” inscribed on it. John Keegan Casey may have only lived a short time, but his powerful words have a life of their own, and are sure to be known for generations to come.


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