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.
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.
There are many, many women in Irish history who never get the recognition they deserve for their contributions to it. Anne Devlin may be the most egregious example of that. Her strength and dedication to the Irish cause was truly like no other.
Stephen O’Donohoe was a poor law clerk in Dublin. He was a family man with four children who struggled to get ahead but only barely managed to scrape by. Like many, he blamed the English rule in Ireland for his woes. He was one of thousands of men who joined the Fenian Brotherhood, a group dedicated to overthrowing the government and getting the English out of his country.
Thomas Farrell was from Williamstown and was a confectioner by trade. He joined the Fenian Brotherhood as well, and while it’s not clear if these two men knew each other, what is certain is that they are now tied together for all of eternity.