Keeffe (O'Keeffe), Matthew (1811–87), catholic priest and agrarian agitator, was born in July 1811 at Higginstown, Clara, Co. Kilkenny, a son of Matthew Keeffe, presumably a farmer, whose paternal ancestors were of Pobble O'Keeffe, Co. Cork, and his wife, Mary (née Keating), who was descended from the barons of Slane. He studied at Burrell's Hall, Kilkenny, before entering Birchfield, then the Ossory diocesan college. Ordained priest in September 1836, he served as a curate at Gowran, Co. Kilkenny (1836–8), from where he returned to Birchfield as professor of theology, moving into Kilkenny city when the new diocesan college, St Kyran's, opened in 1839.
Keeffe's appointment as a curate at Callan, Co. Kilkenny (1843), was to bring him into contact with poverty and disease during the famine. When the parish priest, John Mullins (d. 1854), became infirm with paralysis (c.1846) the administration of the parish fell to Keeffe as senior curate. With another curate, Thomas O'Shea (qv), successor to one who had died of fever in 1848, he formed the Callan Tenant Protection Society in 1849 to give voice to the tenant farmers of the locality, who were seeking a reduction in their rents, particularly on the estate of the earl of Desart, the bête noire of the district. The society attracted as members not only farmers but also merchants and professional men; it provided a model for thirty or so tenants’ associations elsewhere and gave rise to the Tenant Right League, formed at a meeting in Dublin on 6 August 1850 and sponsored by Charles Gavan Duffy (qv), John Gray (qv), and Frederick Lucas (qv). Keeffe was an active member. With the league's support, or at least its approval, three candidates were returned to parliament for Kilkenny city and county at the ensuing general election (July 1852) and as many as forty elsewhere.
Towards the end of 1854 Keeffe wrote a letter to William Shee (1804–68), one of the two MPs for Co. Kilkenny, of whom he had once been a great supporter, reproaching him for failing to support an Irish land bill introduced by William Sharman Crawford (qv). Shee published on 23 October the letter and his reply, thereby drawing it to the attention of Keeffe's bishop, Edward Walsh of Ossory (d. 1872), a friend of his. Keeffe was immediately reprimanded by Walsh and forbidden to take any further part in politics. A public meeting in support of tenant right had been arranged at Callan on 29 October 1854; some ten thousand attended including (as representatives of the Tenant League) Duffy and Lucas. O'Shea spoke up against Shee and for Keeffe, for which he too was silenced shortly afterwards; Lucas, self-opinionated and stubborn, shared the indignation of the crowd that O'Shea and Keeffe had been unfairly treated and, believing that Walsh's action had been taken at the behest of the papal legate, Paul Cullen (qv), took it upon himself to go to Rome to seek remedies for this and other grievances. It was a futile gesture. Keeffe was expected by Lucas to go to Rome too, but he was refused the necessary permission by Walsh, who soon moved him to another parish. Keeffe could at least appeal to Rome; his appeal was finally rejected a year later by the congregation of Propaganda. After 1852 the Callan Tenant Protection Society ceased to function.
In his next curacy, Dunnamaggan (1855–67), Keeffe continued to agitate on behalf of tenant farmers. From 1867 he was parish priest of Aghaboe, a rural parish west of Abbeyleix, Queen's County. One of his achievements was the construction of a fine chapel in Gothic style, which, barely completed, collapsed and had to be rebuilt (1871–7). When the parish priests of the diocese met on 19 September 1871 to make recommendations for a coadjutor bishop to assist and eventually to succeed Walsh, thirteen were for Keeffe, the same number as for Cullen's nephew and secretary, Patrick Francis Moran (qv); the latter was appointed and some months later succeeded. Keeffe was made a canon (1873), a doctor of divinity (1880), and precentor of the diocesan chapter (1883). He was an active member of the Queen's County Independent Club, a body that existed to promote catholic and liberal political interests, particularly those of the farming class. Soon after the outbreak of agrarian agitation in 1879 he formed a branch of the Land League at Aghaboe and was prominent as a spokesman of aggrieved tenant farmers in Queen's County. Keeffe died 29 November 1887 and was buried in front of the chapel he had built. His name is sometimes given as ‘O'Keeffe’ but he preferred ‘Keeffe’; he is not to be confused with another controversial Callan priest, Robert O'Keeffe (qv).