Keightley, Sir Samuel Robert (1859–1949) barrister, politician, and novelist, was born 13 January 1859 in Belfast, the eldest son of Samuel Keatley of Belfast, who may have been a pawnbroker but later became a successful clothier and outfitter and was a JP, and his wife, Catherine (née Brennan). Keightley was educated privately and then at QCB, where he was a scholar in both classics and law, graduating BA in 1879, LLB in 1882, and LLD in 1884.
He published, at the age of nineteen, A king's daughter and other poems (1878), having written the poem that gave the volume its title when he was sixteen. But despite this early foray into letters, Keightley initially devoted himself to practising law. Spelling his name Keightley (though his father continued to use the form Keatley until the 1890s), he was called to the Irish bar in 1883 and the following year joined the north-east circuit, where he established a successful practice, though somewhat unusually he confined himself to appearing at courts in Belfast and the surrounding area.
Keightley's first novel was The crimson sign (1894), a vivid, though somewhat romanticised, description of the siege of Derry. It was followed by The cavaliers (1895), The last recruit of Clare's (1897), The silver cross (1898), Heronford (1899), A man of millions (1901), The pikemen: a romance of the Ards of Down (1903), Barnaby's bridal (1906), and A beggar on horseback (1906) – all, except A man of millions and Barnaby's bridal, historical novels. An excellent evocation of the rebellion of the United Irishmen in the Ards peninsula of Co. Down in 1798, The pikemen is his best work, offering a well-constructed, rapidly moving narrative with some fine characterisation; it ran to four editions by 1906, and in 1936 the government publications office in Dublin published an Irish translation (Lucht pící a's sleagh). Although now forgotten, Keightley's novels enjoyed considerable success, and were popular in the USA. Although uneven in quality, they are never dull, and ‘despite some tendency to long-windedness, have a lot of incident and some good characterization’ (Hogan, i, 648).
Notwithstanding the demands of his practice and his writing, in the early 1900s Keightley became active in Ulster political life when he joined the Ulster Farmer's Union, a small group devoted to the expropriation of estates by compulsory purchase from their landlords. T. W. Russell (qv) MP joined the organisation when he resigned from the South Tyrone Unionist Association in 1901, and it was renamed the Ulster Farmers' and Labourers' Union and Compulsory Purchase Association; Keightley became one of its two joint secretaries. Russell was a liberal unionist, dismissed from his post in the conservative government in 1900 because of his fervent advocacy of land reform; he built up a formidable movement of independent unionists (usually referred to as ‘Russellites’) in several Ulster constituencies in the early 1900s. He initially relied on the votes of presbyterian tenant farmers, and on those of nationalist voters when there was no other candidate to attract their support; by 1906, however, he was increasingly dependent upon the nationalist vote, and in 1907 accepted office under the liberals.
Keightley unsuccessfully contested South Antrim in 1903 and South Derry in 1906, on both occasions as a Russellite. In 1906 he stood on an anti-home rule platform and lost by a narrow margin of seventy-one votes; despite ostensibly opposing policies espoused by the Liberal Party, as the polls closed Keightley helped to found the pro-liberal Ulster Guardian. Proclaiming himself a liberal (though in later years he maintained that he had always been a unionist), he became a prominent member of the Ulster Liberal Association. He continued to champion the cause of the tenant farmer in the columns of the Ulster Guardian, and again stood unsuccessfully in South Derry in 1910, this time as a liberal.
In February 1911 Keightley and the Rev. J. B. Armour (qv) of Ballymoney were appointed as government nominees to the first senate of the Queen's University of Belfast – Keightley gaining his place thanks to Armour's urging his appointment on the Liberal government. Keightley was an active member of the senate until his term of office expired in 1914, and in 1912 unsuccessfully proposed that it pass a resolution sympathetic to home rule. He was knighted in 1912 but, despite his efforts and those of Armour in the Liberal cause, neither was reappointed to the senate by the Liberal government in 1914, a notable slight to two of its leading supporters in Ulster. Keightley withdrew completely from public life after this. He lived at Fortwilliam Park and at 9 Mountpleasant, both in Belfast, then at The Fort, Lisburn, and Drum House, Drumbeg, Lisburn, both in Co. Antrim. In the early 1930s he moved to Dublin, where he lived for the rest of his life.
Keightley was married twice. In 1892 he married Gertrude Emily Smith (Gertrude Keightley (qv)), younger daughter of Henry Smith of Northampton, with whom he had two sons (both of whom joined the British army – one died of influenza in 1919 after serving throughout the first world war). Gertrude died in 1929, and in 1930 he married Anne, widow of Colonel Vowell. He died on 14 August 1949 at Grattan Lodge, Naas, Co. Kildare.