Keohler (Keller), Thomas Goodwin (1873–1942), writer, company secretary and long-time friend of James Joyce (qv), was born in Belfast on 19 June 1873 to Joshua William Keohler, a methodist who was in the flour business, and Agnes Keohler (née Maxwell-Nesbitt); his father's family were originally from Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford. Keohler was the third of six children, with one brother and four sisters. The family moved to England in 1876, where Joshua Keohler ran a flour mill at Runcorn in Cheshire, he then left the flour business and moved his family to Dublin where he worked in insurance and preached to methodist congregations around the city.
A gifted pianist, Thomas's 'heart was set on music' according to his friend H. F. Norman, but despite Joshua Keohler offering to support his son's interest, he refused, feeling it would 'tax his father unduly' (Norman, 1942). Instead he worked first in the office of the Merchant Warehousing Company (1890–6), then as a clerk at W. and R. Jacob and Co. before taking up a role at Messrs Hely's Ltd, stationers and printers, in 1902. He worked in Hely's for the rest of his career, some forty years, rising to the role of company secretary. Keohler married Agnes Marguerite Baxter, an Englishwoman and daughter of a Moravian minister, on 4 March 1904. They had one daughter, Katherine Frances.
Keohler had a voracious cultural appetite and became involved with the literary set centred on writer and artist George William Russell (qv) ('Æ'). He was involved in efforts to establish a national theatre company in the early 1900s (the word 'national' having less to do with the scope of the enterprise, than its sentiment). The Irish Literary Theatre (1901) was one early endeavour, staging plays by W. B. Yeats (qv), George Moore (qv) and Douglas Hyde (qv). Then came the Irish National Dramatic Company (1902), which started life in the small Camden Street Hall theatre where brothers Frank Fay (qv) and William Fay (qv) put on regular performances, as well as providing a meeting place for the city's literati. There, Russell's sketches hung on the walls, Joyce occasionally sang, 'displaying a tenor voice of rare quality', and Yeats would hold forth on Nietzsche (Sunday Independent, 6 Jan. 1929).
The National Dramatic Company segued into the Irish National Theatre Society (1903). Yeats served as its first president, with Russell, Maud Gonne (qv) and Douglas Hyde as his vice presidents. Keohler was a trustee and was involved in the selection of plays for performance (in the early days these were read by members of the society and voted upon). The company also toured, and Keohler himself appeared on stage a few times, including in an early performance of Yeats's 'The king's threshold' in London in 1904. The society took over the newly established Abbey Theatre (late 1904) and was heavily subsidised by patron Annie Horniman (qv), an associate of Yeats. Before long, the theatre people (led by the Fay brothers) and the nationalist ideologues (Yeats, Lady Gregory (qv) et al.) clashed over the repertoire choices, ultimately leading to a split in the company (brokered by Keohler), with the theatrical faction forming the National Players. Another subsequent offshoot of disgruntled members of the National Theatre Society was the Theatre of Ireland, established 1906 by Padraic Colum (qv) and others, and in which Keohler also took a keen interest.
In a reflective piece on the development of Irish theatre written for the Sunday Independent in 1929, Keohler described himself as 'casually connected' with the Abbey Theatre, despite having sat on its business committee during its formative years. Keohler had not approved of the Yeats-led cohort's approach to the theatre's management, earlier expressing misgivings about the fact that the generous patronage of Horniman gave them too disconnected an independence: 'They professedly do not seek to give the public the play that it wants. They only produce those that they themselves approve of … If Yeats could only forget for a while his “theories” – dramatic and otherwise, and think, as he did in his earlier days, more of Ireland and her needs, we should have much more hope of the future of the Abbey Theatre' (from a handwritten article, Keohler papers). He did, however, support the decision to stage J. M. Synge's (qv) Playboy of the western world. In 1907 he submitted a favourable review of the play to the Sinn Féin newspaper, whose editor Arthur Griffith (qv) agreed to include it despite finding the play 'genuinely repulsive' (Griffith to Keohler, 31 January 1907, Keohler papers).
Keohler's own literary output was diverse. He contributed essays to the new Irish review Shanachie (1906–7), published by Joseph Maunsell Hone (qv), John Eglinton's (qv) equally short-lived Dana (it ran from May 1904 to April 1905), and wrote non-political pieces for Arthur Griffith's United Irishman (1899–1906) and Sinn Féin (1906–1914). As Michael Orkney he wrote for the New Ireland Review, and the Irish and Sunday Independents between 1907 and 1910, usually on literary topics.
He also wrote poetry, and five of his pieces appeared in New songs: a lyric selection made by 'A. E.' in 1904, a popular volume of works from eight young Irish poets (Keohler, Padraic Colum, Eva Gore-Booth (qv), Alice Milligan (qv), Susan Mitchell (qv), Seumas O'Sullivan (qv), George Roberts (qv) and Ella Young (qv)). Described by the Freeman's Journal as a 'very great advance' upon the incumbent nationalist poetic tradition forged in the pages of the Nation (1842–1900). In his preface to the collection, Æ celebrated the poetry as revealing 'a new mood in Irish verse' (New songs, 1904).
Many of the reviews of New songs focused on the more familiar names of Colum, Gore-Booth and O'Sullivan, though Keohler's efforts did receive praise. In 1906 he published a booklet of twenty-eight poems titled Songs of a devotee, which were favourably reviewed: 'they reveal an earnest, genuinely poetic mind, which has many interesting thoughts, and endeavours to express them in adequate shape' (Ir. Times, 29 June 1906). While he privately continued to write poetry, Keohler did not publish another volume for over thirty years.
In 1914, shortly after the outbreak of the first world war, he and his brother Robert Nesbitt Keohler legally changed their surname to the less Germanic 'Keller', though Thomas continued to use Keohler for some of his writing. His published output thinned a little during the 1910s but was reinvigorated when his friend Seumas O'Sullivan launched the Dublin Magazine (1923–58), a quarterly publication that featured poetry, short stories, essays and criticism and would provide an important platform for the next generation of literary figures including Samuel Beckett (qv), Patrick Kavanagh (qv), Austin Clarke (qv) and Mary Lavin (qv), as well as old guard figures like Keohler.
In 1937 Keohler produced a limited-edition book of poetry, Timely utterances. As it was intended for private circulation it was not widely reviewed, however a writer in the Irish Press gave it guarded praise: 'It is many a year since Thomas Keohler's verse first came to public notice. The Irish literary movement to which he belonged has gone … Thomas Keohler is a craftsman with cold words. Some readers may prefer fire for the forging, but the deftness of his verse cannot be denied' (12 May 1937).
He is perhaps best known for his long association with James Joyce, and Keohler is thought to have been the only one of Joyce's early Dublin friends that he maintained contact with. Joyce had visited his friend at Hely's on a number of occasions and it is thought this informed his choice of Hely's printworks as the former workplace of Leopold Bloom (Ulysses, 1922). Joyce left Ireland in 1912, never to return. As well as the Hely's connection in Ulysses, Joyce dropped the name 'Koehler' (his spelling) into the second chapter of the book, 'Nestor', amongst those the character Stephen owed money to: 'Fred Ryan, two shillings. Temple, two lunches. Russell, one guinea, Cousins, ten shillings, Bob Reynolds, half a guinea, Koehler, three guineas, Mrs MacKernan, five weeks' board'. Michael Orkney gets a similar passing mention in Finnegans wake.
In 2010, letters between Joyce and Keohler, and Keohler's copy of a first edition poem 'The holy office' by Joyce, sold for £65,000. The poem is Joyce's first published work, albeit self-published and distributed to friends, with only three to four known copies surviving of an estimated 100 printed in 1905 in Pola (then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, now known as Pula). Joyce had a signed copy of Keohler's Songs of a devotee, which he carried with him for many years around Europe.
As well as Joyce, Keohler corresponded regularly with the young poet and playwright Padraic Fallon (qv), who sent him verses for his critique, and exchanged affectionate letters with writer Norah Hoult (qv), a family friend, keeping her apprised of the movements of their shared connections in Dublin, and she likewise those in London. Another friend was writer and theosophist James H. Cousins (qv) based in Madanapalle, India, with whom he exchanged poetry.
An understated and even-tempered man, and a shrewd observer of others, Keohler kept company with, and was ultimately overshadowed by, the most important literary figures of his day. In a tribute to him in the Dublin Magazine after his death, his friend H. F. Norman wrote 'It seems strange that plain candour can camouflage and almost hide a man' and described him as 'the plain, four square, ingenuous-hearted, truth-seeking, truth-speaking man on whose essential innocence and integrity the affection of his friends mainly centred; but on whose concealed deeps, imaginative, emotional, intelligential, his sparse and half-revealing writings were rather the commentary than the text. For the text was himself: an ipissima verba of being' (1942).
After a few years of repeated ill health, Thomas Goodwin Keohler died at home at 12 Charleville Road, Rathmines, on 26 May 1942. He is buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, Harold's Cross, Dublin. His papers are held at the National Library of Ireland and include handwritten draft articles on the evolution of the National Theatre Society and Abbey Theatre, and works on Shakespeare, Yeats and Shaw, including celebratory verses. In 1945, his son-in-law George Hetherington organised the publication of 150 memorial booklets of Keohler's poetry, including verses from his New songs, Songs of a devotee and Timely utterances, as well as a previously unpublished poem 'Mary Magdalene'. Fifty copies were distributed amongst his friends, the remainder were sold through the Dublin Magazine by subscription.
Other notable members of Keohler's family included his brother Robert's daughter Pauline Clotworthy (qv) who enjoyed great success as a fashion designer and established the Grafton Academy of Dress Designing and Millinery on St Stephen's Green in the late 1930s, which has produced many of the country's most notable designers. His sister's son Walter Keohler Beckett (qv) (related to playwright Samuel Beckett on his father's side) was a composer and musician whose works included 'Golden hair' (1980), a song cycle to words by James Joyce.