Keogh, William Nicholas (1817–78), MP and judge, was born 17 December 1817 in Mary St., Galway city, eldest son of William Keogh, solicitor and clerk of the crown, and his wife Mary, daughter of Austin French of Rahoon, Co. Galway. After attending Dr Huddard's school on Mountjoy Square, Dublin, he matriculated (1832) at TCD, where for two years he studied science and threw himself enthusiastically into the life of undergraduate debating societies. Leaving without a degree, he was admitted to King's Inns, Dublin, in 1835, and was called to the Irish bar in 1840. He began practice on the Connacht circuit and before long his declamatory courtroom skills combined with an outgoing and witty personality provided him with a tidy living as junior counsel. Though he published two thoroughly researched works on Irish chancery law in 1839 and 1840, these did not enable him to make inroads into the lucrative practice of that court. Nor does he appear to have earned a reputation in forensic law equal to his acknowledged prowess in the rhetoric of advocacy. In 1843 he was one of a number of young barristers to launch what became a standard series, the annual Irish Law Reports. Meeting and impressing the Birmingham banker and political reformer Thomas Attwood during a vacation in London (1846), he was persuaded, on the promise of financial assistance, to venture into electoral politics at the next available opportunity. Having in 1842 acted on behalf of the Athlone conservative party at registration sessions, and with family connections on his father's side in the district, he was nominated as a Peelite tory candidate for the notoriously corrupt borough at the general election of August 1847. Confronting a body of diocesan clergy hostile to his candidacy, on account of pro-establishment opinions expressed in a pamphlet of 1844, he put the liberal opposition into disarray by the judicious bribery and treating of sufficient electors to win the seat by six votes on 5 August. A proposed petition against his election was settled amicably within a couple of weeks. It is possible that some of his later problems in political life had their roots in loans taken and unwise expenditure of personal capital made during the course of this election.
Obliged to keep up circuit practice throughout his parliamentary career, as an opposition MP (the only Irish catholic tory in the commons) he nevertheless maintained a reasonable record of house attendance, contributing vigorously to a number of debates during 1848 and 1849. In April 1848 he deplored the landlord-and-tenant bill of the Irish chief secretary Sir William Somerville (qv). The following month he pertinently criticised the exclusion of catholics from the Young Ireland trial juries. Surveying the structure of crown prosecution in Ireland in May 1849, he focused on inadequacies in the payment scale observed by sessional solicitors, and on the slow turnover of Irish crown counsel. During debate on the county court system in June that year he objected to the wholesale appointment of English graduates to Irish office and the want of due recognition accorded to Irish legal training. In 1849 he was raised to QC on the recommendation of Thomas Lefroy (qv), lord chief justice of Ireland. In a debate in April 1850 on legal appointments in India, the burden of his thought lay in British failure to pass on the emoluments of empire to members of the Irish legal profession. A bill introduced in the commons by Keogh later that month to improve practice in the Irish court of prerogative was passed over as unwieldy.
In the light of later controversy, it is notable that his principal concerns in parliament revolved around reworking the distribution of office. A pamphlet of 1849 made light of Irish nationalist ideology. Though he shortly found himself in liberal company, he never forsook family and personal belief in crown and union. In August 1850 he was, however, one of only two Irish MPs to attend the inaugural conference of the Tenant League in Dublin. During the anti-papist ferment over the proposed assumption of territorial jurisdiction by the English catholic hierarchy in September 1850, he was drawn into uncharacteristic revolt against the measures of government. He joined forces with the loose confederacy of Irish and other MPs resisting the threatened anti-catholic legislative programme of Lord John Russell. Told in early February 1851 that the Irish lord lieutenant had approved the proposed registration of Jesuit priests, Keogh angrily condemned a compliant commons ‘acting as jackal to her majesty's attorney general’ (quoted in Naughten, (1981)). George Moore (qv) claimed to sense the possibility of Keogh's withdrawal from the so-called ‘Irish Brigade’ as early as March 1851. But Keogh was undoubtedly a wholehearted participant in the campaign, inside and outside parliament, against the ecclesiastical titles bill introduced by Russell in late February 1851 to prohibit the assumption of territorial diocesan titles by catholic bishops.
The Brigade's dilemma was that an able, powerfully eloquent Irish tory (though Keogh was described as a liberal-independent for a time), soon made himself indispensable to furthering the aims of a liberal–nationalist coalition of Irish MPs. During the vociferous debates on the bill in April–May 1851, he led opposition with caustic assaults on the proposal and in committee showed an ingenious grasp of legislative content. There is little need to suspect the integrity of his motives at this period: he was outraged by the mistrust of catholic allegiance to the British state explicit in the bill and in anti-papist agitation, which of course made for a potential block on the natural advancement of Irish catholic professionals under the union. His passion was inevitably mistaken in Ireland (and by fellow MPs) for a conversion to Irish catholic nationalism, which may account for Keogh's recurrent bouts of unease with his position in the movement during 1851–2 (confided to his friend George Moore). He undoubtedly made things worse for himself by a tendency to crowd-pleasing sentimental patriotism at public demonstrations in those years.
The earliest meetings of the Catholic Defence Association (CDA), organised by Keogh and Reynolds in April 1851, confined the objectives of the movement – too strictly for Charles Gavan Duffy (qv) and others – to restoring the catholic church to good standing and due respect within the UK. Some week after the titles bill became law in August 1851, Keogh was the secretary and principal speaker at the first public meeting of the CDA, at which Archbishop Paul Cullen (qv) presided. In Galway on 25 August, Keogh spoke on the need for an Irish party acting independently and aloof from both whigs and tories. He and Cullen together issued an address ‘To the catholics of the United Kingdom’ on 26 September 1851, calling for a parliamentary party ready to defend Irish civil and religious liberties. It was ironic that in his pursuit of church control and the repression of Irish nationalism, Cullen had ousted Keogh from the post of secretary by December 1851. To add to his chagrin, in the face of resounding assertions by Keogh to the effect that he would refuse to support an administration that would not repeal the titles act, Frederick Lucas (qv) and others persisted in their suspicions of his probity. Keogh rejected approaches by the tory chief secretary, Richard Southwell Bourke, Lord Naas (qv), in February 1852, shortly before seconding the introduction of a tenant-right bill by William Sharman Crawford (qv). He was zealously supported by the local catholic clergy at the general election of July 1852, and retained his borough seat comfortably.
In November 1852, when it appeared as if the independent Irish party held the balance of power, Keogh prevailed on the group not to negotiate with either whig or tory, should the event arise. Weeks later the tory Derby administration fell, on a block of Irish votes, when it refused to entertain bringing the Crawford bill into law before introducing its budget. During the interval before the formation of the Aberdeen administration of 1852–4, there is evidence that Keogh, John Sadleir (qv), and others lobbied for appointment to office, in clear violation of a succession of pledges on their part. Keogh's appointment to the office of Irish solicitor general was announced by the new prime minister in late December 1852, to righteous consternation among Irish nationalists. A furious Tenant League executive denounced Keogh and Sadleir, but many of his fellow members of the Irish Brigade were more ambivalent towards his decision. Cullen was not upset to have a catholic in high office. Keogh's Athlone electorate and local clergy had no qualms about approving his elevation to administrative prosperity (which would be to their benefit), and he held on to his borough seat until 1856.
Whether the defection had fatal consequences for the independent Irish party has been widely debated. Keogh never attempted to explain his act of compromise. With his fellow Irish officeholders he resigned briefly in early June 1853 in dismay at anti-catholic remarks by Russell. He was appointed Irish attorney general 7 March 1855, and in April 1856 sworn in as second judge of the court of common pleas. Though on occasion discursive and over-zealous on the crown side in political prosecutions, he was regarded as lucid in the presentation of law to juries. In three major cases he angered nationalist opinion. His conduct of the trial for agrarian murder of the McCormack brothers at Nenagh assizes in March 1857 was considered a brutal denial of justice. Though complimented by most of the Fenians under trial at the special commission at Green St. and in Cork city (December 1865–January 1866), many observers felt that his court management was disgracefully one-sided. But above all, the fury shown in his indictment of the misbehaviour of catholic clergy at the Galway election of January 1872, in the concluding report of the trial of the election petition of William le Poer Trench (qv) in May that year, resurrected much of the popular rage against his person of twenty years previously. It did little for his deteriorating mental health that he required police protection for most of the rest of his life. Sunk and withdrawn, he cut his throat at a sanatorium in Bingen-on-the-Rhine, Germany, on 30 September 1878.
He married (1841) Kate, daughter of the surgeon, Thomas Rooney. They had one son and two daughters.