Casey, John Keegan (1846–70), poet and Fenian, was born 22 August 1846 at Mount Dalton near Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, son of Luke Casey, the local schoolmaster; nothing is known of his mother. He was educated at Mount Dalton and at Ballymahon, Co. Longford, where his family moved. A keen student, he was fond of poetry and especially ancient Irish legends, but he also enjoyed boating on nearby Lough Ree and hunting rabbits and hares. From his mid-teens he assisted his father as a teacher at Ballymahon and later taught at Newtown Cashel, Co. Longford. In the early 1860s he joined the IRB in Ballymahon. The Polish rebellion of 1863 caught his imagination and sparked him to write a poem, the ‘Lesson’, which was published in the Nation. From then on he wrote regularly, contributing to the Nation and the Irish People under the pen-names ‘Leo’ and ‘Kilkeevan’. In 1865 he took a job as a clerk in Castlerea, Co. Roscommon, but he continued to write and work as an IRB organiser. Arrested in Castlerea with other suspects after the Fenian rebellion of March 1867, he was sentenced to seven years' penal servitude and imprisoned in Mountjoy jail, Dublin. Imprisonment took a heavy toll on his health and he was released 16 November 1867.
Among his best-known ballads are ‘The rising of the moon’ (c.1865), ‘Máire my girl’ (written for his wife), ‘Donal Kenny’, ‘Soggarth Aroon’, and ‘St Patrick's day in the morning’. The first of these, invoking the martial spirit of 1798, was particularly popular and he regularly recited it at public meetings to great applause. His poems were collected in A wreath of shamrocks (1866) and The rising of the moon (1869). The Saturday Review said of the former that Casey puts ‘treason in a fascinating, tolerant and intelligent shape’. He wrote some longer poems, notably ‘St Kilian’ (1866), about an early Irish missionary, and ‘Intemperance’ (1876), supporting the anti-drinking campaign of Father Mathew (qv); he repeatedly argued that every drink taken by Irishmen funded the government that oppressed them. His stirring and patriotic verse was very popular in its day, but much of it is clichéd and derivative and has not aged well. He also wrote short fiction for the Shamrock, Young Ireland, and the Boston Pilot.
A fine public speaker, he made several tours in Ireland and Britain lecturing on the influence of nationalist poetry; he claimed that it was poetry above all that fortified a people's national spirit and gave them the courage to resist oppression. He was a regular speaker at amnesty meetings, and campaigned vigorously at Dungarvan in the general election of November 1868, his fiery speeches helping to unseat the Liberal, Charles Robert Barry (qv), who had earned the enmity of nationalist Ireland by prosecuting Fenians in the state trials of 1865. Casey was generally contemptuous of constitutional nationalists, claiming that the British government would never grant any concessions to Ireland unless forced, and he called on the young men of Ireland to arm themselves and unite in pursuit of Irish independence. He died in Dublin 17 March 1870 from the effects of consumption, compounded by injuries received when his carriage collided with a dray, and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery. His funeral, attended by tens of thousands, was one of the greatest nationalist demonstrations of the period, and a large monument featuring a shamrock, a harp, round tower, Celtic cross and Irish wolfhound was erected over his grave. The poet Thomas Caulfield Irwin (qv) wrote an ‘In memoriam’ dedicated to him.
He married (20 November 1867) Mary Briscoe, of Castlerea, at the pro-cathedral, Marlborough St., Dublin; there is no record of any children.