Keogh, John (1740–1817), silk merchant and catholic politician, was born probably in Dublin, the son of Cornelius Keogh (1708?–1774) and his wife, Abigail (1711?–1779). He served an apprenticeship, probably with the firm of the Dublin merchant Hugh O'Connor (d. 1783) in the Isle of Man. Later he worked in Dublin for Mary Frances Lincoln, who carried on a business at the Spinning Wheel in Francis Street and in 1770 took Keogh into partnership as Lincoln, Son & Keogh at the Eagle in Dame Street. In December 1772 Keogh announced that the partnership was dissolved and that he was in business on his own account at the Peacock in Dame Street. He is listed in Wilson's Dublin Directory from 1773 until 1788 as a mercer at 77 Dame Street. In the Dublin Evening Post of 11 December 1787 he announced his retirement as a silk mercer and recommended his successors, one of them a son (perhaps a cover for his wife), ‘under the firm of C. Keogh, Langdale and Power’. Keogh acquired extensive landed property in counties Sligo, Leitrim, and Roscommon. In 1792 he claimed to have 2,000 tenants on his estates; in the same year he was said to have ‘bought above £2,000 per annum in the county of Roscommon, where his family have much influence’ (Lord Buckingham, quoted by Wall). His home was a fine mansion with grounds, Mount Jerome, at Harolds Cross, Dublin, purchased in 1784 for £1,000.
By 1779 Keogh was connected with the Catholic Committee (the main body representing lay catholics in Ireland) and in 1791 – a year of much dissension which finally saw a split between members led by Lord Kenmare (qv) who owed their wealth and status to land ownership and those who like Keogh owed it to trade – he and Edward Byrne (qv) emerged as the two leading members. In September of that year Keogh went to London to take part in the negotiations for catholic relief being conducted with the British government by Richard Burke; he returned to Ireland with Burke (early January 1792) and at first supported him as assistant secretary in Ireland of the Catholic Committee, but before long found him to be ineffectual, perhaps even a double agent. Keogh got Burke replaced by Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv) and, with assistance from Tone, Thomas Braughall (qv), and Richard McCormick (qv), succeeded in organising a representative Catholic Convention, which met in Dublin (December 1792). He was one of the five delegates who went afterwards to London to present to the king the petition agreed by the convention calling for the removal of remaining catholic disabilities. The catholic relief bill that the chief secretary, Robert Hobart (qv), presented to the Irish house of commons (8 February 1793) largely satisfied him and was passed. When the appointment of a reforming whig viceroy, Earl Fitzwilliam (qv), became known (December 1794), the Irish whig leader Henry Grattan (qv) sent for Keogh and Byrne and promised them a final catholic relief bill. Fitzwilliam had been in Ireland only seven weeks when he was recalled. Keogh, Byrne, and John Hussey went to London, as the delegates of a meeting of catholics held at Dublin (27 February 1795), with a petition against the recall; Keogh made a heated speech in a similar vein at this and later at another such meeting (9 April), but the petition failed and Grattan's bill was defeated (5 May).
Whether Keogh was a member of the Dublin Society of United Irishmen is unclear. No record has been found of his admission or of his participation in its affairs. In November 1792, however, he was said by one member, Thomas Collins (qv), to be ‘the principal performer behind the scenes, as the fellow's art is such that he does not appear amongst us but has a set of fellows to constantly attend and broach his sentiments’ (McDowell, ‘Proceedings’, 43–4). Keogh wrote to Tone in America on 3 September 1795 strongly urging him to go to France and procure a French invasion of Ireland; he was regarded by Tone, throughout his residence in France, as a leading revolutionary. Keogh was never mentioned publicly for any part he may have played in the clandestine United Irish movement after 1795; he was never arrested and in 1798, at the height of the rebellion, he was one of over 2,000 catholics who signed an address, dated 30 May, declaring their loyalty to the king and constitution. Against this it has to be considered that he was mentioned by Leonard MacNally (qv) in ten reports made to Dublin Castle between 19 October 1796 and 7 December 1797, and in seven made by Francis Higgins (qv) between 11 October 1796 and 1 February 1798, as an associate of men known to be involved in sedition. Another government informant, Samuel Turner (qv), in supplying details of the United Irish national committee, which he joined in January 1797, stated that John Keogh and Richard McCormick ‘were of the committee but did not attend’ (National Archives, Kew). Moreover on 18 September 1798 (in the aftermath of the rebellion) an informant asserted that ‘Keogh is a secret friend to this business and deep in it, though a seeming friend to government, a double game’ (Landreth, 331). Seven months later, in April 1799, another informant, a former United Irishman, Dr Thomas Wright (qv), was reported as believing that Keogh had been ‘the chief planner of all the mischief which has taken place; that he was once a member of the directory; that, however, he has ever taken care to keep himself out of danger and has left the country’ (ibid., 332).
The debate between Helen Landreth and Francis Finegan on whether Keogh was a government informer is inconclusive. William Drennan (qv) probably got to the truth of the matter in explaining why Keogh was not arrested with so many other suspects in March 1798: he was ‘the most cunning . . . of the set’ (Drennan–McTier letters, ii, 133). He was said in 1799 by an anonymous informant to be ‘worth 50,000 to 60,000 pounds made in the silk mercery line’ and to have been a ‘member of the executive committee of the U.I.’ but since then ‘to have made his peace, privately, with government’ (suspects book). On 29 July 1803, a few days after the abortive rebellion of Robert Emmet (qv), Keogh's house was raided by the Trinity College yeomanry and his papers seized. One reason may have been that Keogh had entertained Emmet at Mount Jerome in October 1802, another that two of Keogh's sons had been fellow students with Emmet and were known to be radicals.
When the Catholic Committee was revived in 1804, Keogh reappeared as a public figure, urging a mere statement of grievances in preference to a petition (2 December). It was on his initiative that a series of meetings of Dublin catholics was begun in 1807, at one of which he made a speech regarded as inflammatory (9 February). At a later catholic meeting (13 July 1810) he spoke favourably of Tone (who had been convicted of high treason in 1798) and of the possibility of another French invasion, for which he was censured by the chief secretary, William Wellesley-Pole (qv), though Keogh's purpose was to support an argument in favour of pragmatism. Keogh was indeed a supreme pragmatist – ‘a man of consummate sagacity who knew the value of words and how to use them’ (Finegan, 82), ‘all things to all men’ (O'Flaherty, ‘Catholic Committee’); he was admired by Irishmen of such widely differing political opinions as Tone, Edmund Burke (qv), Archbishop Thomas Bray (qv), and the whig MP George Knox (qv), as well as by the British foreign secretary Lord Grenville.
John Keogh died on 13 November 1817 at Mount Jerome. Only six weeks previously he had given Drennan and other promoters of the Belfast Academical Institution ‘a history of the Catholics for nearly two hours and a warm hand but no heart in the end, being a poor old man with £4,000 a year’ (Drennan–McTier letters, iii, 704). With his wife, Mary (1756/7–1823), who seems to have been the daughter of a Dublin merchant, George Drew (d. 1790s?), he had four sons, Cornelius (b. 1778/9), John (1780?–1854), Michael, and George Drew, and a daughter, Mary (1785?–1804). It must be supposed that Cornelius was the ‘C. Keogh’ referred to above and listed in the Dublin Directory for 1789, 1790, and 1791 as being in business with Langdale and Power as mercers at 77 Dame Street, and for 1792 and 1793 as being in business alone. Undoubtedly he was the Cornelius Keogh recorded as having entered TCD on 6 January 1794 aged fifteen, but not as having graduated, and who was reported on 16 April 1799 as being in Hamburg and allegedly on his way to Paris to join the French army; he is mentioned by Madden as still living in 1843. John Keogh the younger, who like his younger brothers had attended school in England, entered TCD on 3 November 1794 but did not graduate; he fought a duel with another student on 2 March 1798. Three of the brothers were abroad during the rebellion of 1803. A watercolour portrait of John Keogh by John Comerford (qv), for whom he sat in June 1811, is in the NGI.