Cane, Robert (1807–58), nationalist, physician, and historian, was born in Kilkenny city; his mother's name was Scott, from a well known Kilkenny family. In the 1820s he worked as a pharmaceutical assistant in Kilkenny, and graduated from the Royal College of Surgeons, London (1831). During a severe cholera epidemic in Dublin he distinguished himself by his devoted care of patients, and on his return to Kilkenny in 1832 he was appointed medical officer of the Kilkenny Union workhouse and fever hospital. He graduated MD from Glasgow University (1842) and was appointed fellow of the RCSI (1844). He developed a large and profitable practice in Kilkenny, and was appointed family physician to the marquess of Ormond. A regular contributor to Dublin medical journals, he also wrote Some practical remarks on cholera (Kilkenny, 1849).
While at college in Dublin he chaired many political meetings and also took a prominent part in public affairs in Kilkenny. A catholic, he was one of the city's leading repealers during the 1840s and was appointed a JP (c.1840) and elected mayor of Kilkenny (1844). He was a friend of leading Young Irelanders such as Charles Gavan Duffy (qv) and Thomas Davis (qv), and he encouraged Davis to take a more active role in politics. He sympathised with the Young Irelanders, but believed they were often politically naïve, and during the dispute on the colleges bill (1845) he advised them to proceed cautiously on religious questions. After their secession from the Repeal Association in July 1846 he warned them to avoid recriminations and not to underestimate the attachment of the people and clergy to Daniel O'Connell (qv). Since Kilkenny city was the parliamentary seat of John O'Connell (qv) for several years, he was well aware of the extent of O'Connell's public support and was determined to stay on good terms with the O'Connellites. He was appointed to the council of the Irish Confederation on its founding in January 1847. Duffy described him at a confederate meeting as being ‘tall as a grenadier, and burly in proportion, slow of speech and fond of ponderous phrases’ (Duffy, 434).
After the French revolution of February 1848 his language became more militant: he made frequent calls for the summoning of a national parliament in Dublin and intimated that violent rebellion would follow if the government interfered. He appears to have been an important influence in attracting his townsman James Stephens (qv) towards militant nationalism. Elected to the Confederate Clubs executive council in late May 1848, he attempted to reconcile Young Ireland and O'Connellite repealers in summer 1848. As the leading confederate in Kilkenny, he was approached by Young Ireland leaders in July 1848 to assist their rising. However, he claimed that the Kilkenny confederates were not strong enough to act independently, and when reinforcements from neighbouring counties were not forthcoming he refused to aid the rising, believing that it was doomed to failure, and persuaded an armed crowd that had gathered near his house to disperse. He treated the confederate John Kavanagh, who was wounded in the fighting at Ballingarry. Because of his reputation as a prominent confederate, Cane was arrested 29 July 1848 and imprisoned for three months.
In a gesture of support he was again elected mayor of Kilkenny in 1849, and that year also became first treasurer of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society. He entertained Thomas Carlyle in Kilkenny in July 1849: Carlyle described him as a kind host and ‘a person of superior worth. Tall, straight, heavy man, with grey eyes and smallish globular black head; deep bass voice, with which he speaks slowly, solemnly, as if he were preaching’ (Carlyle, 85–6). In October 1853 Cane founded the Celtic Union, a nationalist literary and political society. He edited the society's magazine, The Celt, which first appeared in August 1857, announcing it would be ‘Irish, Celtic, catholic and progressive’ with a mission: ‘To stir up past memories. To develop existing energies and resources, and to direct the national heart to pulsate with pride for the past and hope for the future’. At his home, 8 William St., Kilkenny, he regularly held evenings for nationalist writers, including Charles J. Kickham (qv). In the March 1858 issue of the Celt he proposed a plan to unite all shades of nationalist opinion in a new political organisation. He wrote an uncompleted History of the Williamite and Jacobite wars (1859), published by the Celtic Union, and contributed articles to the Celt, the Nation, and various antiquarian journals. After a short illness he died of consumption 16 August 1858 in Kilkenny, and was buried at St John's cemetery, Kilkenny. He was married with eight children.