Keane, Sir John (1873–1956), 5th baronet, landowner, businessman, and Irish Free State senator, was born 3 June 1873, the son of Sir Richard Keane, 4th baronet, and his wife, Adelaide Keane (née Vance). The Keane baronetcy was conferred in 1801; in the late nineteenth century the holder of the title owned 8,909 acres with a mansion, Belmont, at Cappoquin, Co. Waterford. Keane was educated at Clifton College, Bristol, and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. He succeeded his father as 5th baronet in 1892 and entered the army in 1893 as a lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery. In 1896 he was aide-de-camp to the lord lieutenant of Ireland. He served throughout the South African war of 1899–1902, was mentioned in dispatches, promoted to captain in 1900, and received the campaign medal with three clasps. After the war (1902–5) he was private secretary to the governor of Ceylon, Sir A. H. Blake (qv), and he was called to the bar in the Middle Temple, London, in 1904. He also studied public finance and accountancy.
Keane served on Waterford county council in the period before the first world war, aligning himself with the All-for-Ireland League of William O'Brien (qv); he was also one of Lismore's poor law guardians, and in 1911 was DL and high sheriff of Co. Waterford. He resumed active service with the Royal Artillery during the first world war, which he hoped would resolve Ireland's political divisions. He trained Second Army soldiers in the use of trench mortars, was awarded the DSO, mentioned in dispatches, and made a member of the Légion d'honneur. He was promoted major in 1916 and received the temporary rank of lieutenant-colonel in 1917. After the war Keane campaigned against ‘wasteful’ government expenditure, helped to organise a dead meat factory in Waterford city, and was active in the cooperative movement. During the civil war he took a leading role in organising paramilitary farmer vigilantes to break farm labourers' strikes in Co. Waterford. During the 1920s he was Irish correspondent of the Sunday Times.
Keane was nominated to the first Irish Free State senate in 1922. Belmont was burnt by republicans on 19 February 1923 during a campaign against senators' houses; he applied for £24,600 in compensation, received £10,800, and rebuilt the house. Keane was recognised as a formidable debater, an expert on procedural and financial matters who initiated more debates than almost any other senator, but also something of a maverick. During the passage of the 1923 Hogan land act his numerous pro-landlord amendments were unsupported even by other landlords and ex-unionists. Keane was the only member of the oireachtas to oppose postwar rent regulation (he was president of the House Owners' Protection Association). He attacked the hydroelectric Shannon scheme as extravagant and socialistic, then criticised the government's decision to employ German rather than British engineers to build it. Opponents dismissed him as the spokesman for bankers and landlord interests; he called himself ‘an unrepentant capitalist’ (Seanad Éireann deb., 11 Dec. 1946).
Keane was the most outspoken opponent of the censorship legislation of 1928. In speeches showing a wide acquaintance with modern literature he declared the bill an assault on the liberties of protestants and the ‘intelligent minority’, predicting correctly that it would lead to the banning of significant literary works such as Midnight court by Brian Merriman (qv). In 1934 he protested that customs officers were adopting an extremely stringent interpretation of their power to prohibit importation of ‘indecent’ literature.
Keane's unwillingness to act in concert with the ex-unionist group in the senate led to his failure to win re-election in 1934. When Éamon de Valera (qv) reconstituted the senate in 1938, he nominated Keane to the seanad as a representative of the protestant minority and of business interests (he was a director of the Bank of Ireland and served as governor in 1942); he was renominated in 1943 and 1944, and retired in 1948. Keane was also a member of the council of state.
In November 1942 Keane put down a senate motion of no confidence in the censorship board. He delivered a wide-ranging critique of censorship, which was seen by many commentators as needlessly provocative. Keane emphasised the banning of the account by Eric Cross (qv) of a west Cork traditional storyteller, The tailor and Ansty (1942), of the novel The land of spices (1941) by Kate O'Brien (qv), and of a book on the rhythm method of birth control by the Catholic gynaecologist Halliday Sutherland. The chairman of the censorship board, Professor William Magennis (qv), was also a member of the senate and delivered a long-winded and bad-tempered defence of its record. The debate is a locus classicus in the history of Irish literary censorship as one of the few occasions when censors were required to justify their decisions. Keane's motion received little support, and the senators censored their own official record by deleting extracts from Cross and O'Brien quoted by Keane. He was subsequently denounced by Father Patrick Gannon SJ (1879–1953) in a pro-censorship article as ‘mouthpiece of the literati’ (Studies, xxxi (1942), 409–19). In 1944 Keane tried to amend the censorship legislation, but withdrew when the government announced its own bill.
Keane served as a commissioner of charitable donations and bequests (1942–5) and as vice-president of the National Institute of Industrial Psychology, and was a member of the Kildare Street Club (Dublin) and the Army and Navy Club (London). He took an active role in the general synod of the Church of Ireland and was a member of the Representative Church Body. In 1907 he married Lady Eleanor Hicks Beach, daughter of Michael Hicks Beach (qv), 1st earl of St Aldwyn and former chief secretary for Ireland; they had one son and three daughters. Keane died in a Dublin nursing home on 30 January 1956. He appears as a character in Thomas McCarthy's novel Asya and Christine (1992).
Keane is remembered as an unusually outspoken Anglo-Irish critic of the increasingly restrictive Gaelic-Catholic ethos which dominated the first decades of the new Irish state. However, his links to the ancien régime and his view of individual liberty as indivisible from laissez-faire economics helped populist advocates of censorship to dismiss such views as demands for special privileges by an arrogant elite.