The Bold Fenian Boy

A school teacher at 16, a national figure at 19 and a dead hero at 24.

The Forgotten Irish Patriot.

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By the River Inny.

Loved by his people for his inspirational poetry, feared by the British for the motivational power of his poems, locked in a prison cell of mental and physical torture, eventually released a broken young man, and dying soon afterwards from his ill-treatment.

This is the story of John Keegan Casey, the young Fenian Poet who inspired his anguished countrymen, crushed and destitute during the years of famine and evictions, with poems such as ‘The Rising of the Moon,’ ‘The Reaper of Glenree,’ ‘The Forging of the Pikes’ and ‘The Patriot’s Love’.

So much was packed into that short life. In those few years of the mid 1800’s, the rallying call of his lyrical voice lifted the spirits of a troubled people and scared the oppressors into even more tortuous degradation, knowing that his songs and ballads were more dangerous than arms and ammunition.

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Fenians on the march.

From 1846 to 1870, Casey lived through the post-Famine hell of starvation and poverty. The suffering of his generation was intense, and millions of his peasant people either starved to death along the byways of Ireland or in ‘coffin ships’ fleeing from the agony and torment of their homeland to a new life in America or Australia.

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An eviction of a tenant farm family in County Clare.

Those who survived were motivated to resist and revolt by the fervour of the young poet’s nationalism. The songs and ballads, easy and lyrical, were sung at every gathering, even at the risk of arrest and prison.  His message was simple, but the fervour of his nationalism inspired his despairing comrades to a new spirit of rebellion and patriotism.

Think upon your famished brothers,

Think upon you father’s graves,

By their glories and their sorrows,

Youth of Ireland, be not slaves.

John Keegan Casey became the voice of Ireland’s resistance to the torment and torture of the post-Famine years. The ‘Nation’ newspaper gave him that voice. Through the pages of that enlightened journal his rallying call reached every corner of his country, carrying a message of hope and courage to an oppressed people that would sustain them in their suffering and inspire them to new levels of resistance. His own patriotism was never in doubt. It shone through in his words and in his writings.

“Oh! If the blood that swells my veins

Could e’en the smallest fetter break

Of the encircling iron chains,

I’d part it freely for thy sake!”

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The memorial to John Keegan Casey in Glasnevin Cemetery. Dublin.

It was all too much for the ‘Crown Forces.’ His voice was too dangerous to their policy of tyranny and enslavement. He was arrested, thrown into the bowels of Mountjoy prison without trial, and subjected to a regime of solitude, malnourishment, and indignity for eight months; an incarceration that was designed to nullify his gifted mind, destroy his young body, and silence his patriotic voice forever.

Sadly for Ireland’s cause they succeeded in their treacherous barbarity. On Saint Patrick’s Day 1870, Ireland came to Dublin to bid farewell to their ‘Bold Fenian Boy’. 50,000 grieving and down-trodden mourners shuffled behind his coffin through the streets of the capital, while 100,000 more tearfully lined the streets. They laid him in the hollowed clay of Glasnevin Cemetery to rest among his fellow-patriots who had gone before and who had paid the same price in the struggle for Irish freedom.

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His Memorial in County Longford.

A giant heart full of love and emotion, a youthful body of handsome manhood, a razor-sharp mind mature beyond its years, and an all-seeing vision with courage and confidence. That was John Keegan Casey, Ireland’s brightest light so cruelly extinguished by Britain’s Crown Forces.