John Casey

John Casey

In Brief

In Eumaeus Bloom mistakenly attributes the poem Caoch O'Leary to "poor John Casey." He has confused the author, John Keegan, with John Keegan Casey, the "Poet of the Fenians" who wrote The Rising of the Moon, the well-known song about the Rebellion of 1798. Both men died young, but Casey especially deserves to be called "poor": incarceration after the Fenian Rising in 1867 destroyed his health, and he died at age 23.

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The son of a school teacher, Casey was born near Mullingar in County Westmeath in August 1846, at the height of the great famine. He lived through years of overwhelming anguish: mass starvation and disease, mass evictions of peasants from their cottages, mass emigration in the "coffin ships," criminal government neglect, more radical and militant forms of nationalism, harsh crackdowns by the state authorities. As a teenager he began writing nationalistic ballads like The Patriot's Love, The Reaper of Glenree, The Forging of the Pikes, Máire My Girl, and The Rising of the Moon. Many were sung at political gatherings, and their popularity led Casey to move to Dublin, where he joined the Fenian movement and wrote articles for The Nation under the pen-name "Leo." His collected poems, published as A Wreath of Shamrocks in 1866, brought him still more fame, and he spoke at mass rallies in Dublin, Liverpool, and London.

After the suppression of the Fenian rebellion, Casey was imprisoned without charges in Mountjoy Prison for eight months. Released because of poor health on condition that he self-transport to Australia, he stayed in Dublin in disguise, married, and had a child, but the baby died in October 1869 and Casey himself did a few months later, on St. Patrick's Day, 1870. Newspapers estimated that more than 50,000 people followed his casket to the Glasnevin cemetery on foot, and another 50,000 to 100,000 lined the streets to see it pass by. Fifteen years later, a monumental Celtic cross was erected over his grave.

Almost anyone might be forgiven for mixing up Keegan and Casey, two relatively obscure 19th century poets from the Irish Midlands who had similar names and both died young. But is Bloom the culprit, or Joyce? If it's Bloom, the error is entirely consistent with all his other close-but-not-quite stabs at remembering obscure information, including his confusion of Thomas Gray and Thomas Campbell in Hades, when he tries to recall who wrote Elegy in a Country Churchyard. Rather than scorn Bloom for his defective mnemotechnic, a kindhearted reader might admire this largely self-educated man for the range of what he does know, and sympathize with his inability to get everything right. 

JH 2020
1867 prison photograph of John Casey. Source:
A later photograph of John Casey, date unknown. Source: