O'Kearney (Kearney), Nicholas (‘Nioclás Ó Cearnaigh’) (c.1800?–1865?), Gaelic poet, editor, scribe, Irish-language revivalist, and literary forger, was born in Thomastown, just west of Dundalk, Co. Louth, probably c.1800. He may have been a son of James Carney and Caty (sic) Callehan, who lived in the same townland and had a daughter Mary (O'Kearney appears to have had a sister Mary). He is an unreliable source for his early life, and one may perhaps doubt his assertion that he was reared in Thomastown House, home of the MacDermotts, a local catholic gentry family, from whom he claimed descent. No record exists of a formal education, but the earliest of his many manuscripts (UCD, Morris 6), dating from 1817–23, indicates that he, Mary and James ‘Carney’ (his siblings?) were being taught Gaelic literature by their neighbour Art Murphy, and this and other early manuscripts show local Gaelic enthusiasts competing in ‘bardic contests’.
The appearance of Hardiman's Irish minstrelsy (1831) saw O'Kearney combine with Dundalkman Matthew Moore Graham in compiling ‘The bardic remains of Louth’, which survives in two manuscripts (RIA 24.L.25 and UCD Morris 17), and which they hoped to publish in up to seven volumes. O'Kearney undoubtedly composed many of the poems he ascribed to earlier poets such as Peadar Ó Doirnín (qv), and the project never materialised due to lack of financial support. In these and other unpublished writings, he blamed the government for the decline of the Irish language, advocating that it be taught in schools, and that an institution be established to preserve Irish manuscripts.
In the early 1840s, working as an excise clerk in Dundalk, O'Kearney became involved with the Irish-language and harp-music revival efforts of Fr T. V. Burke, OP, of Drogheda, and his proposal to establish a nationwide organisation was lent support by Charles Gavan Duffy (qv) of The Nation. The latter printed on 1 April 1843 perhaps O'Kearney's first published work, the poem ‘A Ghaeilge mhilis’, which he characteristically ascribed to Ó Doirnín, and other verse and prose works followed. It may have been involvement with the Young Irelanders that lost him his civil service post; by mid 1844 he had moved to Dublin, teaching orphans in a school attached to the Dominican house in North Great Denmark St.
The move to Dublin in 1845 of the publisher and bookseller John O'Daly (qv) improved O'Kearney's prospects, and he began preparing texts for publication when together they founded the Irish Celtic Society. Though these survive in manuscript, none were ever published, perhaps because his annotations were replete with anti-government remarks, outmoded theories on the origins of the Irish language, and admissions of his belief in fairies. He supplemented his earnings by transcribing manuscripts for O'Daly, the remarkable William Elliot Hudson, and the Co. Cork antiquarians William Hackett and John Windele (qv). Encouraged to seek employment in one of the new Queen's Colleges, O'Kearney declined on religious grounds.
The foundation of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society provided an outlet for his talents, and several essays appeared in its Transactions (1850–52), but these soon saw him embroiled in controversy on matters relating to Celtic tradition, folklore, etymology, and Ogham inscriptions, implicitly with W. R. Wilde (qv), and explicitly with Charles Graves (qv) of TCD, and the ensuing public ridicule led to the composition in 1854 of a satire in Irish about him. Having left his teaching post in 1851 he had fallen on hard times, but got some work translating Irish poetry for William Hamilton Drummond's (qv) Ancient Irish minstrelsy (1852), but only the establishment of the Ossianic Society in 1853 saved him from destitution: he edited The battle of Gabhra (1854) and Feis Tighe Chonain Chinn-Shleibhe (1855).
Within months, however, his reputation was in tatters when he published The prophecies of SS Columbkille [etc.] . . . or the gleanings of several writers who have preserved portions of the now lost prophecies of our saints. . . (1856), part of which was immediately denounced as a forgery by John O'Donovan (qv), Eugene O'Curry (qv) and other highly respected scholars, a controversy that culminated in the publication by R. R. Madden (qv) of his Exposure of literary frauds and forgeries concocted in Ireland (1866). By then, O'Kearney's reputation had been destroyed and his latter days are lost in obscurity. In May 1862 he completed for Fr C. P. Meehan (qv) a manuscript copy of Ó Cianáin's ‘Flight of the earls’, begun (ironically) by his most vociferous critic, John O'Donovan. In a note dated 1877 Meehan described O'Kearney as ‘the late J[ames?] Duffy's [qv] schoolmaster’, presumably a reference to the famous publisher. Various suggestions have been made as to the date of O'Kearney's death but it remains unknown, although his recent demise appears implicit in Madden's Exposure (1866).