O'Keeffe (O'Keefe), John (1747–1833), actor and dramatist, was born 24 June 1747 at Abbey St., Dublin, into a catholic family. Educated locally by Fr Austin, he showed some talent as a painter and was enrolled at the Dublin Society schools. However, his mind soon turned to the theatre, and in the summer of 1762 he went to London, where he stayed with his aunt and attended as many plays as possible. Returning to Ireland (1764) he was engaged by Henry Mossop (qv) to write and act for the Smock Alley Theatre and he began his career in tragic roles before moving to comedy. In 1767 his first mature work (a farce, ‘The she-gallant’) was successfully produced in Dublin; it was revised and staged in London as ‘The positive man’ (1782).
He married (1 October 1774) Mary Heaphy (1757–1813), eldest daughter of Tottenham Heaphy and Alice Heaphy, both actors. A successful actress in Ireland, and later Britain, Mary O'Keeffe made her debut as Juliet in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at Smock Alley on 18 March 1775. During this period John O'Keeffe worked as an actor, performing throughout the country. In 1777 the family moved to London where he wrote two companion pieces to Goldsmith's ‘She stoops to conquer’: ‘Tony Lumpkin's ramble thro’ Cork’ (1773) and ‘Tony Lumpkin in town’ (1774). The second was performed in 1778 at the Haymarket Theatre and was one of his greatest successes. Returning to Dublin in 1779 he completed the words for his comic opera ‘The son-in-law’, which was hailed in Ireland and England. O'Keeffe acted with his wife in the Crow St. company in Dublin between 1780 and 1781. After this their marriage broke up acrimoniously; O'Keeffe discovered his wife's affair with an actor, George Graham, and was so infuriated that he ‘demolished his wife's nose’ (Highfill and others, xi, 98). O'Keeffe returned to England where he resided for the remainder of his life. His most famous and enduring work was ‘The agreeable surprise’ (1781), which followed his ‘Dead alive’, and included the popular jingle ‘Amo, amas, I love a lass’. However, he gradually began to go blind, the result apparently of a childhood accident when he had fallen into the River Liffey; his later works all had to be dictated. Until his retirement in 1799 O'Keeffe produced an astonishing number of plays, of little quality but of some popularity. His plays were often highly fashionable, and then just as quickly forgotten. Never financially secure, he was given a benefit in 1800, where he broke down in tears of gratitude. Writing occasionally for magazines and journals, he published his Recollections in two volumes in 1826; these contained many anecdotes and incidents from his life but little that was accurate or remarkable. He received a royal pension in this year after dedicating the work to King George IV.
O'Keeffe died 4 February 1833 at Southampton. The greatest tribute for his work came from the nineteenth-century critic William Hazlitt, who called him ‘the English Moliere’; sadly this assessment was incorrect on both counts. The patriotic O'Keeffe was largely sympathetic to Irish catholics in his plays, although there are also numerous examples of the stage Irishman. One of his poems, ‘My lamentation’, was an attack on the act of union (1800). In total he wrote seventy-seven works, and some of his plays, like ‘Wild oats’, were successfully revived by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1970s. His estranged wife died 1 January 1813 in Scotland; they had two sons and one daughter. Their elder son, John Tottenham O'Keeffe (1775–1805), was chaplain to the duke of Clarence and died in Jamaica; their second son died in infancy.
Their only daughter, Adelaide O'Keeffe (1776–1865), poet and novelist, was born 5 November 1776 at Eustace St., Dublin. For the first few years of life Adelaide was brought up by a nurse in a cabin in Wicklow, where (she said) her father visited frequently but her mother seldom. With the break-up of her parents' marriage she was denied access to her mother and endured a troubled childhood. Her father sent his children to school in England in 1782, but shipped them to France when he heard his wife had secretly visited them. After education in a convent until 1788, Adelaide acted as amanuensis to her father, by then nearly blind but a highly popular dramatist. Her own first publication was a novel, Llewellin (written 1795, published 1799), which posed as the life story of Piers Gaveston's son told to Chaucer. In 1798 her father retired, leaving money short, and that year she wrote Patriarchal times or the land of Canaan, which expanded the story of Genesis. It went unpublished until 1811, but then ran to a sixth edition in 1842. Renown had come with the group of thirty-four poems which she contributed to Ann and Jane Taylor's hugely popular anthology, Original poems for infant minds (1804) which ran to fifty editions and was translated. These improving, moral but charming verses for children were her best known works. She wrote further volumes of poems for children until 1849, of which the best are National characters exhibited in 40 geographical places (1818), where she profiled different races in an individuated, uncondescending way. She drew on her life for her work; her epistolary novel Dudley (1819), written after her only brother's sudden death in 1803, treats of bereavement while The broken sword, or, a soldier's honour (1854) is about the effect of parents’ estrangement on children.
She lived with her father, first in London and then in Southampton, where he died in 1833. After unsuccessful attempts to sell his unpublished dramatic works, she published a collection of his poems together with a short essay in A father's legacy to his daughter (1834). He had always spoken of taking her back to Ireland, but never did, and after his death, she continued to live in England, working sometimes as a governess. In 1830 she estimated her entire literary earnings at £243 and in 1840 wrote to the Royal Literary Fund, calling her royal pension of £50 a year a wretched pittance. She was living in 3 Spring Place Hill in Southampton in April 1848. She died, unmarried, in 1865.