Profile of William Keogh M.P.

By Samuel J. Maguire


William Keogh was born in St. Mary's Street, Galway in 1817. He entered Parliament for the borough of Athlone. A barrister at law of great ability he had little success at his profession. He was the life and soul of every circle in which he moved, full of bon homie, sparkling with wit, and abounding with jovial good nature. He was a most persuasive speaker, with a rich, powerful voice, capable of every inflection. His manner was intensely earnest. His social qualities, his intellectual gifts, made him a universal favourite.

Opposition to the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill

Challenged as the Irish Catholics were by the penal legislation of Lord John Russell's Ecclesiastical Titles Bill it was encountered with the most determined opposition by what the English press called the score of Irish Liberals headed by Keogh and John Sadleir, the banker, "The People's Brass Band", and which was known at home as "The Irish Brigade". The obnoxious bill was passed and the "Brigade" returned home to receive the nation's gratitude, Keogh especially coming in for the highest applause.

A great gathering of Catholic bishops and clergy, Catholic noblemen and members of Parliament, from Great Britain and Ireland was held in the Rotunda, Dublin on Tuesday 23rd August 1851, to protest against the Titles Bill. One of the speakers was Keogh who delighted the audience by his eloquent denunciation of the penal act, which had just received the Royal assent. Holding aloft a copy of the new statute he declared:

"I now, as one of her Majesty's counsel, holding the Act of Parliament in my hand, unhesitating give his proper title to the Lord Archbishop of Armagh ... We will have no terms with any minister, no matter who he may be, until he repeals that Act of Parliament, and every other which places the Roman Catholic on a lower platform than his Protestant fellow-subject."

In spite of the marked favour which they had won from the Catholic prelates, clergy, and people, and notwithstanding the evidence of their protestations, Keogh and Sadleir were objects of suspicion and mistrust on the part of a few keen observers of passing affairs in Ireland. It was noted that Lord Aberdeen, Sir James Graham, Sydney Herbert, Mr. Cardwell and many leading Peelites had resisted the "No Property" scare in England, and had fought the Titles Bill in Parliament.

Keogh's Motives Questioned

Some people saw among these men a possible future cabinet and it was whispered that the Keogh-Sadleir group were interested in such a contingency. A base calumny, a cruel suspicion, as assassin stab, Keogh proclaimed it to be. The three leading popular journalists of Ireland - Duffy of the Nation, Dr. Gray of The Freeman's Journal, and Lucas of the Tablet, were decidedly suspicious of the group, and a deadly dislike existed between the two parties. Keogh and Sadleir were the popular idols of the hour, however. On 28th October 1851, Keogh was entertained by his constituents at a public banquet which partook rather of the nature of a national demonstration. After an effusive eulogium on Archbishop McHale, who was present, Keogh referred to the insinuations already spoken of.

"Whigs or Tories, Peelities or Protectionists are all the same to me. I will fight for my religion and my country, scorning and defying calumny... I know that the road I take does not lead to preferment. I do not belong to the Whigs; I do not belong to the Tories ... I will not support any party which does not make it the first ingredient of their political existence to repeal the Ecclesiastical Titles Act."

In like solemn manner he pledged to oppose, or not support, any party which did not undertake to settle the Land question and abolish the Established Church. Finally he denounced the Irish landlords as

"a heartless aristocracy, or the most heartless, the most thoughtless, and the most indefensible landocracy on the face of the earth."

At a public meeting in Cork city on 8th March, 1852, in his speech Keogh exclaimed:

"Good God! In this assemblage of Irishmen have you found that those who are most ready to take every pledge have been the most sincere in perseverance to the end, or have you not rather seen that they who, like myself, went into Parliament perfectly unpledged, not supported by the popular voice, but in the face of popular acclaim, when the time for trial comes are not found wanting? ... I have abandoned my own profession to join in cementing and forming an Irish parliamentary party. That has been my ambition..."

The audience listened spellbound, sprang to their feet, and with loud cheering atoned for their doubts of the man whose oath had now sealed his public principles.

Barely nine months later he went over bodily to the minister of the day, and took office under an administration which neither repealed the Titles Act, abolished the Established Church, nor settled the Land question.

Keogh Takes on the Catholic Weeklies

The Catholic bishops, almost to a man, and the great majority of the priests, believed implicitly in Keogh and Sadleir. Sadleir was now a millionaire and to circumvent Duffy, Gray and Lucas with their papers, he put up the sum of 50,000 into the establishment of opposition journals which would dispose of The National, The Tablet and The Freeman's Journal. Commodious premises were taken, powerful machinery and extensive plant were purchased; an editor, "who was given out to be a sort of lay pontiff", William Bernard MacCabe, was brought over from London. The new weekly, called The Weekly Telegraph, was first to eliminate The Nation and The Tablet before the new daily tackled The Freeman's Journal. The Weekly Telegraph, was issued at half the price of the existing Catholic weeklies - three pence; and as money was poured out lavishly, it swept all over Ireland. It penetrated into hamlets and homes where The Nation or The Tablet had never been seen. MacCabe, the editor, was a man of great ability. He pandered to the fiercest bigotry and his efforts delighted and excited the masses. He contrived to make his readers believe that the Pope and John Sadleir were the two great authorities of the Catholic Church: one was its infallible head, the other its invincible leader. The effect was almost to fatally cripple The Nation and The Tablet.

Pope's Brass Band Renege on Promise

Parliament was dissolved on 1st July, 1852, Sadleir, his three cousins, Frank and Vincent Scully and Robert Keatinge, were re-elected. So also was Keogh. They had to accept Tenant Right. It is interesting to note Keogh's address - a veritable encouragement to the Ribbonmen - to a Westmeath mob: "Boys, the days are now long, and the nights are short. In winter the days will be short and the nights will be long; and then let everyone remember who voted for Sir Richard Levinge. (Editor's note: Levinge was the Tory Candidate and a local landlord). Keogh was the man who figured most before the public. The result of the General Election gave a narrow majority to the Liberal Party. The Tories could not hold office. On 4th November 1852, the new Parliament opened, on 17th December it was defeated by a majority of nineteen; and Lord Aberdeen was called upon to form a cabinet. The question was: what would the Irish members do, as the fate of the new ministry was in their hands. The "Pope's Brass Band" sold out; William Keogh became Solicitor-General, and John Sadleir, Lord of the Treasury.

Keogh Becomes Part of the Establishment

In May 1855, Keogh was appointed Attorney-General; a Judge of the Court of Common Pleas in Ireland in 1856; and sworn a member of the Privy Council in Ireland in 1855. He held the position of M.P. for Athlone from 1847 until 1856, and was a member of the commission for trial of Fenian prisoners in 1865. He died at Bingen-on-the-Rhine in 1878.

Keogh's acceptance of office, as already stated, gave great offence to the Nationalists who denounced him as an oath-breaker.

In 1865 as a member of the Fenian Commission he tried the Fenians. Delivering the verdict in the Trench-Nolan case (The Galway Election Petition) in 1872, he denounced the Catholic bishops and priests, and recommended that the Bishop of Clonfert, Dr. Duggan, be prosecuted. Dr. Duggan on Keogh's recommendation was duly arraigned, tried and acquitted through the efforts of Isaac Butt. Keogh's remarks regarding the Catholic bishops and clergy led to his being burned in effigy.

His last appearance on the bench was at Derry where he gave an "Orange" address to the jury. At Bingen-on-the-Rhine he made a murderous attack with a razor on his valet and then cut his own throat.