‘Well dressed and from a respectable street’

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2009), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 17

Irish Volunteer Gerald Keogh, the dispatch rider shot dead outside Trinity College in 1916.

Irish Volunteer Gerald Keogh, the dispatch rider shot dead outside Trinity College in 1916.

Referring to events in and around Trinity College early on the Tuesday of Easter 1916, in a letter to William Hugh Blake conserved in the archives of Trinity College and dated 10 May 1916, Gerard Fitzgibbon writes:

‘One thing that terrified [us] was early on Tuesday morning, just after dawn. Three of their dispatch riders came pelting down on bicycles from Stephen’s Green, bringing dispatches to the Post Office, and we had 12 or 15 men posted in windows and on the roof in front of College. They fired on the cyclists. Killed one, wounded another, and the third left his bicycle & rifle & bolted down a side street . . . The man they shot on the bicycle in the early dawn was riding fast, it was a hard shot at a downward angle from a high window, I believe they only fired four or five shots and he had two through his head, one through his right lung, and a fourth that hit [?] and winged the second man of the party. If they hadn’t concentrated so much they would have bagged all three.’

Sometime after 4.15am the dispatch rider’s body was removed from the street and carried into the college by three men and acting porter George Crawford. The Irish Times Book of the 1916 Rising quotes a Mr John Joly:

‘Later I saw him. In no irreverent spirit I lifted the face cloth. He looked quite young; one might almost call him a boy. The handsome waxen face was on one side concealed in blood. Poor boy! What crime was his? That of listening to the insane wickedness and folly preached by those older and who ought to be wiser than he.’

Elsie Mahaffy, daughter of Provost John P. Mahaffy, made notes about the dead soldier in her diary:

‘For 3 days he lay in College, in an empty room. When necessary he was buried in the Park and later when quiet was restored was disinterred and sent [?] to the morgue, but during the fortnight while he lay in College; though well dressed and from a respectable street, no one ever came to ask for his body . . . His friends must have seen him fall but apparently were too cowardly or too callous to come & secure him decent burial.’

The young man in question was twenty-year-old Gerald Keogh, one of nine children, and his ‘respectable street’ was 25 Elmgrove, Cullenswood, Ranelagh. He was the youngest of four brothers who took part in the rising. Cyril, who described himself as an actor, was arrested and sent to Knutsford Detention Barracks in England on 30 April. Frank was also interned at some stage. Leo, like Gerald, had been a dispatch rider. Being either detained or on the run (rather than being ‘cowardly or too callous’), they were not in a position to recover Gerald’s body. Like their late father, James Keogh, who had owned a shirt and glove business in Sackville Street, many of the family were closely linked to the drapery trade. Gerald was an apprentice draper in 1911. Cyril was not the only member of the family involved in the theatre. Another brother, J. Augustus Keogh, became manager of the Abbey in 1916 on the invitation of Lady Gregory and brought George Bernard Shaw to Ireland for a season.
Who, to answer Mr Joly’s question, had influenced the young rebel? The family had intimate historic links with the United Irishmen and the Fenians. We also know that Gerald had been touched by the infectious spirit of Patrick Pearse. A former pupil of St Enda’s, Gerald was dispatched from rebel HQ in the GPO by Pearse to Stephen’s Green on the evening of Easter Monday and was killed on the return journey early the following morning. Ominously, in 1909 Gerald played the minor part of a soldier in The Boy-Deeds of Cuchulainn in St Enda’s and had now died as a soldier for his country in another minor role in a real-life drama. The Irish Renaissance, which reached an unprecedented level of conscious national intensity, generated an immensely inspiring legacy and touched Gerald. The identity of independent Ireland was fashioned out of this movement before the state came into being and lasted well into its early decades.

Trinity College front gate c.1920. (RTE Stills Library)

Trinity College front gate c.1920. (RTE Stills Library)

But Gerald’s family was not part of this invented identity that adulated rural Ireland as the authentic and exclusive expression of the real Ireland. The society to which Gerald and his wider family belonged (urban, middle-class, Catholic and Gaelic) was aligned in a skewed manner to the cultural invention though not totally divorced from it. It would have excited Pearse—and may excite modern geneticists for a different reason—to know that his young protégé, Gerald, did in fact conserve in his genes genetic markers that were found in the earliest inhabitants of Ireland and neighbouring islands. Family research has also discovered that his paternal lineage was the urban offshoot of people who had owned land in Leinster (probably County Wexford) and may have lost it in the upheavals of the seventeenth century, before coming into the city—like many other dispossessed Catholics—as merchants seeking an alternative livelihood. This distinct cultural niche that grew up in the city was largely overlooked by historians in the lead-up to the birth of the Irish state and long after its formation. The urban Gael, particularly of middle-class standing, was part of a largely neglected city identity, yet one that had made an enormous contribution to these developments.
Although Gerald Keogh was one of the 60 rebels who were killed in action during the 1916 Rising, many, if not most, descriptions of the insurrection don’t recognise his credentials. They label him simply as a ‘dispatch rider’ who was killed outside Trinity College on a bicycle and many fail to mention him by name. Yet there is a prophetic twist in the story: in a note written by Patrick Pearse—coincidentally in 1909, the year in which Gerald joined his school—he said:

‘I dreamt that I saw a pupil of mine, one of our boys at St Enda’s, standing alone upon a platform above a mighty sea of people; . . . I felt an inexplicable exhilaration as I looked upon him, and this exhilaration was heightened rather than diminished by my consciousness that the great silent crowd regarded the boy with pity and wonder rather than with approval—as a fool who was throwing his life away rather than as a martyr that was doing his duty. It would have been so easy to die before an applauding crowd or before a hostile crowd: but to die before that silent, unsympathetic crowd!’

Raymond M. Keogh’s grandfather, Bartholomew Keogh, was Gerald’s half-brother.

Further reading:

R. Dudley Edwards, The triumph of failure (Dublin, 1977).

S. Hegarty and F. O’Toole, The Irish Times Book of the 1916 Rising (Dublin, 2006).

J. Kildea, Anzacs and Ireland (Cork, 2007).

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