Keating, Geoffrey (Céitinn, Seathrún) (c.1580–1644), historian and catholic priest, was born in south Co. Tipperary, his approximate date of birth being surmised on the basis of his active working life. He may have been the third of seven sons of James fitz Edmund Keating of Moorestown, Co. Tipperary, the holder of extensive lands in the barony of Iffa and Offa (NAI, Chancery bills, G 351). His mother's name is unknown but it is likely that she came from a family of similar status in the same locality. If the identification of his father is correct, the young Geoffrey inherited a 113-acre share of the family lands on the death of his father, through the system of gavelkind, but promptly conveyed his interest in the land to a Clonmel merchant, perhaps to help fund his theological education overseas.
The learned family of Mac Craith, who ran a school of poetry at Burgess, Co. Tipperary, not far from Moorestown, provided Keating's early formal education. Such schools were concerned with history, mythology, law, language, and placelore, and students were trained in the use of Irish and Latin manuscripts. This education equipped him with a professional knowledge of the Irish language and its oral and written literature, and provided him with training in the composition of formal poetry. Keating subsequently pursued his theological education on continental Europe, such studies being forbidden to catholics in Ireland. He was unusual among his contemporaries in that he continued his studies through to the degree of doctor of divinity, which he received probably from the University of Rheims. Following the establishment of the Irish college at Bordeaux in 1603, Keating was associated with the new college there for some time, most probably as a teacher, before returning permanently to Ireland about 1610.
The experience of counter-reformation ideas gained during his years in France provided the impetus for his prose writings in the Irish language, both theological and historical. His earliest prose work, a treatise on the mass, entitled ‘Eochair-sgiath an Aifrinn’ (Key to the defence of the mass), was written while he was still on the Continent. The Irish text shows clear signs of having been translated from Latin and it is possible that Keating may originally have presented it as a university thesis. It encapsulated current catholic teaching on the mass, closely adhering to the guidelines issued by the council of Trent at intervals between 1546 and 1562. It drew on the writings of Francisco de Suarez, Robert Bellarmine, and William Durand, as well as on compilations of medieval exempla, most notably the Magnum speculum exemplorum (Douai, 1603).
From the beginning of the second decade of the seventeenth century, Keating worked as a priest in his home diocese of Lismore, and his renown as a preacher was such that he probably travelled through much of east Munster in the course of his ministry. Despite his fame, few references to him survive in contemporary records, although his name features on a 1613 government list of priests and friars in Co. Tipperary (TCD MS 567, ff 32–5). Two years later, in 1615, ‘Father Jeffry Keating, a preacher and a Jesuit, resorting to all parts of this diocese’ was noticed in the visitation of the diocese of Lismore, although he was not, in fact, a member of the Society of Jesus (BL, Add. MS 19836, p. 283). It is not known precisely where he lived, though it is probable that he enjoyed financial support from his own immediate family during the course of his priesthood, and may have occasionally resided with them. Some poetic compositions attributed to Keating are addressed to the Butlers of Cahir, Dunboyne, and Knocktopher, and it seems likely that they were patrons. A vignette in one of his poems, ‘Is uaigneach duit, a phuirt na bpríomh-fhlaith’, depicting a scholar priest studying the Bible in Cahir castle, may be a discreet reference to Keating himself.
Keating's second major prose work in Irish, a theological tract entitled ‘Trí bior-ghaoithe an bháis’ (The three shafts of death), is usually dated to 1631. This treatise on sin, repentance, and death displays many rhetorical features reminiscent of seventeenth-century preaching and is probably a good indicator of the subject matter of his sermons. Some passages echo the content of sermons published in both French and Latin by the renowned French preacher Pierre de Besse in the early seventeenth century. Catholic priests such as Keating who had spent time in French cathedral cities such as Bordeaux and Rheims would undoubtedly have heard sermons drawn from de Besse's publications, and this may have been one of the influences that inspired Keating to make similar material available to Irish readers. The later manuscript tradition indicates that many of the extant copies of his theological writings were formerly owned by catholic clergy.
It is for his narrative history of Ireland that the name of Geoffrey Keating is best remembered. ‘Foras feasa ar Éirinn’ (Compendium of wisdom about Ireland) was researched and written in the late 1620s and early 1630s, reaching its final form c.1634. Keating's mastery of the Irish language and of the medieval manuscript sources allowed him to relate the history of Ireland in attractive modern prose while preserving the essence of earlier traditions. ‘Foras feasa ar Éirinn’ told the story of Ireland from the creation of the world down to the coming of the Normans. It was divided into two books, the first dealing with the pre-Christian era, and the second telling the story of the kingdom of Ireland from the coming of St Patrick in the fifth century down to the twelfth-century arrival of Keating's own Anglo-Norman ancestors. The narrative was structured around a framework of the succession of kings of Ireland, incorporating historical material from the Irish manuscript tradition, notably ‘Leabhar gabhála Éireann’ (Book of the taking of Ireland), ‘Réim ríoghaidhe Éireann’ (Reigns of the kings of Ireland), and ‘Cogadh Gaedheal re Gallaibh’ (War of the Gael and the Gall). Keating's use of a wide range of Irish manuscript sources, as well as printed English and Latin works, suggests that he had established connections with a range of scholars who facilitated his access to such resources. Part of the opening section resembles the introduction by Thomas Messingham (qv) to his Florilegium sanctorum Hiberniae (Paris, 1624). Both men shared an interest in promoting the image of Ireland as an ‘island of saints and scholars’, though it is not known whether they were in contact with one another personally.
Among Keating's learned contacts in Ireland was Conall Mageoghagan (qv) (Conall Mac Eochagáin), and he probably also continued his early association with the learned family of Mac Craith. Scribes from the Ó Maoil Chonaire and Ó Duibhgeannáin families, together with Franciscans including Mícheál Ó Cléirigh (qv), were among those responsible for the wide dissemination of Keating's writings in manuscript in the mid-seventeenth century. Written in stylish prose, ‘Foras feasa ar Éirinn’ became an instant ‘best-seller’ in manuscript and circulated widely not just in Irish, but also in English and Latin translations. Keating's history of Ireland was first published in printed form, in an English translation by Dermot O'Connor (qv), in 1723.
Part of the appeal of Keating's history of Ireland was the polemical introduction that prefaced his narrative. The well known preface criticised the unfavourable views of Ireland published by writers such as Giraldus Cambrensis (qv), Meredith Hanmer (qv), Edmund Spenser (qv), and even the Old English palesman Richard Stanihurst (qv). In much the same way as his tract on the mass denigrated the work of John Calvin, Keating's history was presented to readers as the ‘true’ history of Ireland in opposition to the ‘false’ histories of hostile writers. Some commentators criticised him as too credulous, since he incorporated in his history some fabulous tales of mythical peoples who were among the supposed ancestors of the Irish. His definition of ‘Éireannaigh’ (Irish people) sought to accommodate two traditions in Ireland, the native Irish and the Old English. However, he excluded from his categorisation of ‘Éireannaigh’ all those not born in Ireland and all who were not catholic. His idea of Ireland as an ancient and worthy kingdom proved popular among his contemporaries and among later generations. Dermot O'Connor's 1723 translation adapted the text for the protestant market by substituting the word ‘Christian’ for ‘catholic’ throughout. Because the history preserved much that was valuable from early manuscripts of prose and poetry, it had a lasting value as a vitally important channel through which the story of Ireland, as preserved by the learned class in medieval Ireland, was communicated to modern audiences.
Keating's prominence as an Irish historian has meant that much folklore about his life has circulated for centuries in his home district and beyond. Many of the later stories about him are unsubstantiated. Some can be traced to the writings of Thomas O'Sullevane, published anonymously in 1722, and designed to discredit O'Connor's edition of Keating's history of Ireland. Other traditions, such as the claim that he was killed by the soldiers of Oliver Cromwell (qv), can be shown to be false, since Keating had died several years before Cromwell came to Ireland.
A Latin inscription carved on a stone plaque erected in 1644 over the entrance door to Cillín Chiaráin, a chapel dedicated to St Ciarán (qv) at Tubbrid, Co. Tipperary, commemorates Geoffrey Keating's association with the chapel's foundation. The inscription, which asks for prayers for his soul, provides evidence that Keating had died by 1644. It is generally agreed that he was also buried there, and a memorial cross to that effect was erected inside the ruined chapel in the early twentieth century. The evidence of the 1644 carved plaque indicates that Keating's own contemporaries judged his contribution as priest and preacher to have been exceptional, and worthy of a permanent memorial carved in stone. The legacy of his writings, however, has proved equally durable, earning him the reputation as the founding father of the modern Irish language and as the historian who first provided the historical underpinning for the concept of an Irish catholic nation.