On This Day – 7 December 1817 Birth of Justice William Keogh



There is probably no such word as ‘effigised’ but in Ireland there really should be. Then when it came to ‘the burning of an improvised model of a reviled political figure which is constructed in order to be damaged or destroyed as a protest’ – the dictionary definition of this popular pastime— we could say that they had been ‘effigised’. Think of how useful it would be in Northern Ireland when the umpteenth effigy of Robert Lundy is burned by Apprentice Boys who are neither apprentices nor really have any legitimate claim to the title ‘boys’.

Aside from Lundy, who was actually a Scottish Protestant who seemed peculiarly anxious to hand over the city of Derry to the forces of the Catholic King James in 1689, who is the most effigised figure in modern Irish history? Someone you’ve probably never heard of and who hasn’t been burned in effigy for more than a hundred years now, William Keogh. But in his day he suffered many a roasting.

Keogh, who in the course of a relatively short life left hardly a principle unbetrayed, was born in Galway in 1817. His mother was a ffrench, from one of those Anglo-Irish families who added a superfluous ‘f’ to the beginning of their names, presumably to avoid being mistaken for a garlic-eating, beret wearing, consonant-dropping inhabitant of the country immediately to the south-east of England on the far side of the Channel.

Keogh was a gifted youth who, despite studying science at Trinity College, went on to make a small fortune as a barrister, becoming a Queen’s Counsel at the age of thirty-two.  In caricatures of the man he looks a little like John Redmond but is remembered even less fondly than the leader of the Irish Parliamentary party in the early 1900s. He was, by all accounts, witty, cultured, a highly impressive speaker and excellent company. He was also self-serving, irascible, insensitive and prone to making unpopular decisions in his own political life and later from the Bench.

In 1847 he became MP for Athlone and campaigned against legislation that would have made it illegal for anyone other than a Church of Ireland bishop to hold an ecclesiastical title. He, and his fellow Catholic Irish MPs of the period, became known, as a result of their campaign, as ‘The Pope’s Brass Band’. Keogh also sided with the Tenant League, which fought for the rights of Irish tenant farmers in the 1850s. So far, so popular. Where did it all go wrong?

Keogh’s problems—at least in terms of his legacy—began when he agreed, in 1852, to be bound by a pledge taken by forty Irish MPs not to accept political office but instead to exploit the possibility of holding the balance of power in the House of Commons. However, Keogh, and the equally reviled John Sadleir, quickly jumped ship and accepted plum jobs in the administration of Lord Abrdeen. Keogh became Solicitor General for Ireland, and later Attorney General. He must have wondered, at times, was it worth it. His name, and that of Sadleir, became a by-word for political treachery.

It only got worse when he became a judge in 1855. He was one of the grumpiest justices who ever sat on the Irish bench. His spectacular quarrels with barristers became legendary. The savage sentences imposed on the rather hapless Fenian prisoners who came before him in 1865 added to his lustre as ‘one of the monsters of mankind’, to quote a description of him on the memorial in Tipperary to two brothers he sent to the gallows for murdering a land agent.

In 1872 in a judgment unseating the victorious candidate in the Galway constituency election he formally handed in his tuba and resigned his membership of the Pope’s Brass band when he lacerated the Roman Catholic clergy and hierarchy from the bench for their interference in the campaign, in a legal decision that took nine hours to read. That was when the effigising began in earnest. He certainly hasn’t been burnt as often as Lundy but he probably holds the Irish record for most effigising in his own lifetime.

As time went on Keogh’s behaviour became more erratic. He was described as ‘eccentric’ a term used to cover wealthy and prominent citizens who are actually stark raving mad. Things came to a head the month before his death in 1878 when he attacked his valet with a razor – one of the old-fashioned ones, not the modern safety type. Jeeves would have resigned on the spot and left Bertie Wooster to his own devices. At least Keogh didn’t end up like Sadleir, who committed suicide after the collapse of his Tipperary Bank in 1856.

So bad was Keogh’s reputation that well into the twentieth century, when offered a seat on the Supreme Court by Eamon de Valera, the former Taoiseach, John A. Costello politely declined, citing as his reason a fervent desire not to stand comparison with the place-seeking Justice Keogh.

William Keogh, barrister, politician and popular effigy was born two hundred and one years ago, on this day.



On This Day – 8 September 1852 The Irish Tenant League

sadleir john swindler.jpgWilliam_Nicholas_Keogh_caricature_by_Harry_Furniss.jpg


Today the story of an Irish political party dedicated to the interests of large, comfortable and respectable farmers – but enough about Fine Gael, coincidentally founded eighty-four years ago today. Instead the story of an Irish political party dedicated to the interests of large, comfortable and respectable farmers. Turns out we’ve had quite a few over the years.

The Irish Tenant League was the posh cousin of the Land League of the 1880s. Someone like Michael Davitt would never have been allowed near the Tenant League. He was far too working class. But the League made the 1850s more interesting in Ireland than the decade might otherwise have been, and regularly rattled the cage of the British government, before sliding into the inevitable abyss of corruption and recrimination.

The League was established in 1850s in the wake of the Great Famine. Under the terms of the Encumbered Estates Acts a number of vulture funds were buying up distressed properties. Sorry, that’s actually more recent. Let me rephrase. A number of wealthy capitalists were acquiring bankrupt estates at knockdown prices and threatening to change the rules for sitting tenants. That’s the great thing about history. If you stick around for long enough it just keeps happening all over again.

The leading lights of the new organisation were Charles Gavan Duffy, the former Young Irelander, and the English-born journalist Frederick Lucas, editor of the progressive Catholic weekly newspaper, The Tablet.

It was the Tenant League, not its more illustrious and egalitarian successor, which came up with the three famous demands of the Irish agrarian movement, the ‘3 F’s’, dreaded by every student of Irish history. You could easily recall two, but damned if you could ever remember the third. For the record, they were ‘Fair rent, free sale and … em … em …yes,  fixity of tenure.’

The organisation of the League’s activities fell to another former Young Irelander, Newry-born John Martin, who would later precede Charles Stewart Parnell as MP for Meath. The League attracted the support of the rump of the late Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Party in the House of Commons, and in 1852 managed to return fifty Tenant Right candidates to parliament. These included Gavan, Duffy, Lucas, the banker John Sadlier  from Tipperary, and the lawyer William Keogh, MP for Athlone. The Tenant League MPs were pledged not to align themselves with any British party which failed to endorse the ‘3 Fs’, and to refuse all political preferment.

Of course, it quickly went pear-shaped. A sectarian element intervened when a cohort of Tenant Leaguers decided that the cause of Catholic religious rights was more important than forcing agrarian reform. They broke off to form the Catholic Defence Association, nicknamed ‘The Pope’s Brass Band’. In response Frederick Lucas ill-advisedly took on the powerful Roman Catholic Cardinal-Archbishop of Dublin, Paul Cullen, and lost. Lucas died in October 1855, and the following month Gavan Duffy emigrated to Australia, where he became Prime Minister of the state of Victoria.

But it got even worse than that. Defying the pledge to remain aloof from political office, Sadleir and Keogh accepted positions in Lord Aberdeen’s coalition government, and joined that great anti-pantheon of Irish traitors whom we cherish to this day. Sadlier didn’t last long in office, he was gone by 1854, forced to resign when he was found guilty of trying to bring about the imprisonment of one of his bank’s customers. This errant depositor had failed to deliver on a promise to vote for Sadleir.   Two years later his Tipperary Bank went spectacularly bust and he committed suicide by drinking prussic acid.

It would be nice to report a similar fate for Keogh, instead he became a judge and handed down savage sentences to the Fenian leadership in 1867. It was left to William Gladstone, through his land legislation of 1870, and Davitt’s Land League of the 1880s, to bring into effect the principles of fair rent, free sale and … the other one.

A Dublin conference of the Irish Tenant League adopted an ill-starred policy of independent opposition in Parliament, one hundred and sixty-five years ago, on this day.