On this day in 1846, the Poet of the Fenians was born in County Westmeath, Ireland. John Keegan Casey was born at the tail end of An Gorta Mor – Ireland’s Great Hunger – so he knew desperation, injustice, and poverty at a very early age. The plight of everyone around him shaped him and ultimately motivated him to use his gift for poetry and song to inspire people to rise up against the English. His voice was heard far and wide and he wrote The Rising of the Moon, one of Ireland’s most popular and enduring “rebel” tunes at the tender age of fifteen.
John Keegan Casey’s words soon spread to all corners of Ireland thanks to The Nation, Ireland’s most popular Nationalist publication. They inspired defiance and rebellion everywhere they were heard. Though he used a nom-de-plume (Leo) while writing for The Nation, his identity was becoming well known anyway. It was further revealed when he chose to publish a book of his collected works, many of which had previously appeared in the publication. Not content to stop with his words, John moved to Dublin shortly after his book was published to put himself squarely in the Fenian movement. He was a prolific Nationalist speaker and a central organizer in Dublin before the Fenian Uprising of 1867.
That uprising failed and John Keegan Casey soon found himself sitting in the notorious Mountjoy prison. The English authorities imprisoned him without trial and clearly hoped that if he was locked away the power of his words would fade. They did not, but John did. He was malnourished and dispirited and his weakened body would trouble him for the rest of his life. He was confined for eight months and one of the conditions of his release was that he would leave Ireland, living in quiet exile in Australia. He opted for living in disguise in Dublin instead. The authorities may have broken his body, but they definitely didn’t break his mind.
Sadly, John Keegan Casey’s failing health meant that he only had a few years left in him. It is thought that he never fully recovered from his stint in Mountjoy and a fall from a cab did him in. He passed away at the young age of twenty-four. Thousands and thousands of mourners turned out to honor the Fenian poet in Dublin and his memorial stone in Glasnevin Cemetery is still visited regularly. It is adorned with nearly every Irish symbol you can imagine, including a wolfhound to symbolize John’s undying loyalty to Ireland. His songs continue to be sung across the island (and the rest of the world) to this day. His life was tragically short, but his words are still going strong over 150 years later.