The remarkable story of John Keegan Casey, the bold Fenian boy

A school teacher at 16, a national figure at 19, and a dead hero at 24. The forgotten Irish patriot John Keegan Casey. 

John Keegan Casey
John Keegan Casey Public Domain - USA

A school teacher at 16, a national figure at 19, and a dead hero at 24. The forgotten Irish patriot John Keegan Casey. 

Loved by his people for his inspirational poetry, feared by the British for the motivational power of his poems, locked in a prison cell of mental and physical torture, eventually released a broken young man, and dying soon afterward from his ill-treatment.

This is the story of John Keegan Casey, the young Fenian Poet who inspired his anguished countrymen, crushed and destitute during the years of famine and evictions, with poems such as ‘The Reaper of Glenree’, ‘The Forging of the Pikes,’  ‘The Patriot’s Love’ and the world-famous song: 'The Rising of the Moon,' which he wrote when only fifteen years old.

Read More: John Haltigan - a Kilkenny Fenian born 200 years ago

So much was packed into that short life. In those few years of the mid-1800’s, the rallying call of his lyrical voice lifted the spirits of a troubled people and scared the oppressors into even more tortuous degradation, knowing that his songs and ballads were more dangerous than arms and ammunition.

From 1846 to 1870, Casey lived through the post-Famine hell of starvation and poverty. The suffering of his generation was intense, and millions of his peasant people either starved to death along the byways of Ireland or in ‘coffin ships’ fleeing from the agony and torment of their homeland to a new life in America or Australia.

Those who survived were motivated to resist and rebel by the fervor of the young poet’s nationalism. The songs and ballads, easy and lyrical, were sung at every gathering, even at the risk of arrest and prison.  His message was simple, but the ferment of his nationalism inspired his despairing comrades to a new spirit of rebellion and patriotism.

Think upon your famished brothers,

Think upon you father’s graves,

By their glories and their sorrows,

Youth of Ireland, be not slaves.

Read More: Fenian convicts transported to Perth remembered by their descendants

John Keegan Casey became the voice of Ireland’s resistance to the torment and torture of the post-Famine years. The ‘Nation’ newspaper gave him that voice. Through the pages of that enlightened journal his rallying call reached every corner of his country, carrying a message of hope and courage to an oppressed people that would sustain them in their suffering and inspire them to new levels of resistance.

It was all too much for the ‘Crown Forces’. His voice was too dangerous to their policy of tyranny and enslavement. He was arrested, thrown into the bowels of Mountjoy prison without trial, and subjected to a regime of solitude, malnourishment, and indignity for eight months: an incarceration that was designed to nullify his gifted mind, destroy his young body, and silence his patriotic voice forever.

Sadly for Ireland’s cause they succeeded in their treacherous barbarity. On Saint Patrick’s Day 1870, Ireland came to Dublin to bid farewell to their ‘Bold Fenian Boy’. 50,000 grieving and down-trodden mourners shuffled behind his coffin through the streets of the capital while 100,000 more tearfully lined the streets. They laid him in the hollowed clay of Glasnevin Cemetery among his fellow-patriots who had gone before and had paid the same price in the struggle for Irish freedom.

The grave and monument of John Keegan Casey in Glasnevin Cemetery.

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