O'Keeffe, Robert (1814–81), catholic priest and educationist, was born in Green St., Callan, Co. Kilkenny, youngest and posthumous child of Robert Keeffe or O'Keeffe and his widow Elinor (née Fennelly) (d. 1861), grocers and iron-mongers. Both parents were from ‘strong farmer’ families. One of Robert O'Keeffe's first-cousins, John Fennelly (1806?–68), was vicar-apostolic of Madras from 1841 until 1866, when he was succeeded by a younger brother Stephen Fennelly (1815–80). After an early education at a local classical school he entered Burrell's Hall, Kilkenny (1831), and later, intent on an ecclesiastical career, Maynooth College (29 August 1834). In both he was an outstanding student. In 1839 he was ordained deacon, entered the Dunboyne establishment for advanced study (1840), and was recalled to his diocese for ordination as priest and appointment as professor of classics and science at St Kyran's College (1843), the successor institution to Burrell's Hall. Though primarily the Ossory diocesan college, St Kyran's (later St Kieran's College) provided mercantile and scientific courses. O'Keeffe, who had studied science at Maynooth under Nicholas Callan (qv), introduced courses in optics and other popular sciences and warmly welcomed the affiliation of St Kyran's, for examination purposes, to London University (1844). The death in 1845 of his mentor, the bishop of Ossory, William Kinsella, and differences over policy with his successor, Edward Walsh (1791–1872), resulted in his removal from the pro-presidency of St Kyran's (which he had held from 1847) to a remote curacy at Ballyouskill, Queen's Co. (1849).
Promotion did not come until August 1860 when he was appointed parish priest (a secure position) of Rathdowney, also in Queen's Co., and vicar forane of the northern deanery. In the latter capacity he reorganised catholic-managed national schools. When his native parish, Callan, became vacant he requested and was granted removal there (31 January 1863). O'Keeffe soon proved a self-assured, energetic, enterprising, outspoken and popular pastor whose great concern was the advancement of education. Being parish priest he was appointed manager of the four catholic national schools in the town. He introduced the Christian Brothers (1867–8) and set about introducing a French female teaching order, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary. By the mid 1860s jealousies and rivalries had developed, as O'Keeffe used his position to promote his family's business, now handled by his sister, Mrs Catherine Corr. In revitalising a boys’ national school by employing as headmaster a man, Walter Hawe, who had been headmaster of Glasnevin Model School (forerunner of the Albert College), affiliating it to the Science and Art Department at South Kensington, ensuring the teaching of science, agriculture and other practical subjects as well as Greek, Latin, French and science (which he taught himself), renaming it Callan Academy, and even admitting two protestant pupils, he was opposed by Bishop Walsh, the Christian Brothers, the local inspector of national schools and several influential citizens whose businesses suffered competition from Mrs Corr's. Later O'Keeffe recollected Walsh telling him at a meeting of clergy on 5 May 1869, ‘you were a shopkeeper first when you went to Callan and now you are turned schoolmaster – neglecting the duty of the parish’ (Kirkpatrick, Report, 220). The bishop went on to repeat a discredited charge of immorality against O'Keeffe, for which the latter issued a writ for slander, later withdrawn. Walsh retaliated by replacing one of O'Keeffe's two curates, a relation, James Corr, with an old antagonist, Patrick Neary, who thereupon, with the second curate, John Walsh, accused O'Keeffe of misrepresenting the bishop's wishes in two financial matters. O'Keeffe, further incensed by Bishop Walsh's refusal to admit the French nuns, issued another writ against the bishop (December), resulting in a trial at the court of Queen's Bench in Dublin at which the bishop was exonerated (5–6 July 1870). Undeterred, O'Keeffe then issued a writ against John Walsh and eventually won his case (December).
Early in October 1870, O'Keeffe was suspended by Bishop Walsh's dean and vicar-general, Edward McDonald, for having contrary to canon law sued his bishop in a civil court. O'Keeffe's great popularity at Callan as well as his objections to the suspension on procedural grounds made it impossible for the diocesan authorities to enforce it, or to take possession of the chapels, schools or parochial house, notwithstanding three further suspensions. Callan was bitterly divided into two catholic camps. Throughout 1871 there were frequent disturbances, the poorer and rougher elements (known as ‘red lights’) as well as O'Keeffe's extended family connections supporting him, rival business families, Fenians (whom he had censured) and their employees (all known as ‘schismatics’) opposing him. Intervention by Paul Cullen (qv), the papal legate in Ireland, and by a Callan-born American priest, a follower of the German anti-infallibilist cleric Johann von Döllinger, widened public interest in the affair. Though Cullen was at first unusually conciliatory, O'Keeffe became vindictive. The situation worsened; O'Keeffe won a case for slander against Neary (June); partisans on both sides were prosecuted for violence; at an open-air meeting of O'Keeffe's supporters (10 December) he was compared favourably with two earlier Callan priests, Matt Keeffe (qv) and Thomas O'Shea (qv).
In the meantime Cullen had obtained from Rome full powers to discipline O'Keeffe (May); when conciliation proved unsuccessful, he formally deprived him of his office and benefice (13 November). This having little or no effect on the situation at Callan, Cullen placed the ‘parochial church or chapel’ under an interdict, declaring that he was ‘acting on the authority of our holy father’ (16 December). The interdict made no difference to attendances at the chapel. O'Keeffe began an action for libel against Cullen (26 February 1872). Money was given by admiring Callan parishioners and English protestants. O'Keeffe published a pamphlet, Cardinal Cullen and the P.P. Callan (1872), containing letters relevant to the dispute. The affair took on greater significance and gained wider attention when O'Keeffe, having been deprived of his ecclesiastical office by Cullen, was dismissed by the respective national boards as chaplain to Callan workhouse (7 February) and as manager of five Callan national schools (25 April). In a petition to both houses of parliament he complained that ‘Cardinal Cullen is endeavouring to substitute in Ireland Roman for British legislation in temporal affairs and the commissioners of poor law and of national education have given him their active aid.’ The prime minister, Gladstone, brought the matter before his cabinet and gave his opinion to the queen. The Irish lord chancellor, Lord O'Hagan (qv), took the view that both boards had acted properly. O'Hagan's view was accepted, in respect of the commissioners of national education, by the recorder of Dublin who, in dismissing a claim by Callan teachers for unpaid salaries, held that their contract was with O'Keeffe who was no longer manager and so the board was no longer liable for payment.
The papacy intervened again (March 1872) by appointing as parish priest of Callan the newly-consecrated coadjutor bishop of Ossory, Patrick Francis Moran (qv). O'Keeffe rallied his supporters in an attempt to prevent Moran from performing confirmations in the parish but was thwarted by a large police presence (May). Another setback for O'Keeffe, in the same month, was the resignation of Hawe and the revelation that he had been dismissed from Glasnevin for drunkenness. Another was the indignant catholic reaction to the judgment of the presiding judge, William Keogh (qv), in the Galway election petition (27 May), which O'Keeffe's opponents put to advantage by portraying the litigious priest as another catholic detractor of the Catholic church. Disturbances by his supporters at parish missions introduced by Moran, diocesan bishop on Walsh's death (11 August), deprived O'Keeffe of much sympathy, especially after four of his supporters were arrested for murder. Cullen prepared himself well for his defence against O'Keeffe's libel charge, even going to Rome for audiences with the pope (October); O'Keeffe was unconvincing in court; nonetheless, by direction of the presiding judge, James Whiteside (qv), the jury found for O'Keeffe, whom it awarded, however, damages of only one farthing (8 May 1873).
Such was the state of schools in Callan that a parliamentary committee was appointed to investigate (15 May); O'Keeffe gave impressive evidence (12 June). Though the committee made no recommendations, the house of commons had already ordered the recent proceedings and correspondence of the commissioners of national education on the Callan schools to be published (12 May). This caused O'Keeffe to sue Bishop Moran for libel in a letter sent to the commissioners; the jury found for the tempestuous priest and awarded him £50 damages (July 1874). In another pamphlet, Ultramontanism versus civil and religious liberty (1875), O'Keeffe sought to combat the ‘temporal power of the pope and the binding force of his laws of discipline’. A new trial of his case against Moran was ordered (February 1875). O'Keeffe reacted by reviving an action for libel against Dean McDonald. While O'Keeffe was away in London raising money, his opponents forcibly took possession of the chapel (29 June) and tried to enter the parochial house (1 July). His action against McDonald ended in the latter's favour a month later. The general mood had changed in the bishop's favour. O'Keeffe was virtually a prisoner in the house, ransacked and unroofed despite a police presence (11 October 1875), himself languishing in poverty and misery until finally, humbly, making peace with his bishop (July 1879). He moved then to Thomastown to live with a first cousin on a pension of £9 per month granted by the diocese. O'Keeffe died 1 February 1881, his last words being ‘what a fool I have been!’. He was buried at Castle Eve, the graveyard protected by a large force of police. More rioting followed.
The O'Keeffe affair, arising from petty jealousies in a small Irish town and lasting over 15 years, reached the attention of the highest dignitaries in church and state – it was the subject of no fewer than seven parliamentary papers; more than any other it raised fundamental questions about church-state relations. As an educationist O'Keeffe was ahead of his time in believing in a broad education for the poor as well as the rich; as a priest he was recklessly divisive and litigious, fatally so in pursuing Cardinal Cullen. The O'Keeffe affair was the basis of a novel, The big chapel (1971), by Thomas Kilroy, also a native of Callan.