much packed into a short life
poet and political activist Leo Casey is synonymous with
the county Longford town of Ballymahon but he was a Westmeath
man, born at Milltown near Rathconrath in 1846, and he spent
the first eight years of his life there.
remembered as the author of The Wearing of the Green,
which he is reputed to have written when he was just 15
years old, Leo had two volumes of verse published before
his untimely death at the age of 24 on St. Patricks
Christened John Keegan Casey, he adopted Leo
as a penname and at the age of 20 launched his first collection
of poems, A Wreath of Shamrocks in 1866, comprised
of verses he had previously contributed to a variety of
The Caseys were of Westmeath stock. His father Luke was
born in the parish of Milltown in 1812 and began his teaching
career in his home area in 1835. Eight years later Luke
married and fathered three children, two daughters Anne
and Elizabeth, in addition to his only son.
Leo Casey was born at the height of the famine. In the mid-1850s
the family moved to Gurteen, a few miles west of Ballymahon,
just over the border in county Longford, where his father
became principal of the local national school.
Casey was greatly influenced by his fathers love of
country and sense of justice. Luke Casey was active in the
Tithe Wars and was reprimanded by his superiors for his
The Tithe Wars lasted over two decades in the first half
of the 19th centuries and arose out of the resentment among
Catholic tenants farmers over the mandatory payment of one-tenth
of their incomes in support of the Established Church.
Within a few years Leo was working as a monitor for his
father at Gurteen National School. Monitors were bright
senior pupils in schools who provided assistance in the
Both his sisters became teachers and Leo wanted to follow
in his fathers footsteps into the teaching profession.
Regarded as a poor disciplinarian, Leo also found the textbooks
had too English a slant for his liking and opted out of
Caseys early ballads proved
popular with Fenian sympathisers at fairs and meetings.
While resident at Ballymahon he hired the local hall from
the parish priest for supposed religious meetings. In truth
they were focal points for spreading the Fenian gospel.
His most famous composition The Rising of the Moon
commemorates the heroic failure of the 1798 Rebellion and
in the run up to another failed bolt for freedom, the Rising
of 1867, it became widely popular.
Sung to the air of The Wearing of the Green,
it opens, Oh! Then tell me, Shaun OFarrell,
Tell me why you hurry so? and concludes,
Well they fought for poor old Ireland
And full bitter was their fate
(Oh! What glorious pride and sorrow
Fills the name of ninety-eight.
Yet, thank God, een still are beating
Hearts in manhoods burning noon,
Who would follow in their footsteps
At the Risin of the Moon!
Other compositions such as the Reaper of Glenree,
The Forging of the Pikes and The Patriots
Love had an incendiary effect on the attitudes of
young people towards those in power.
It was while working as a commercial traveller in Castlerea,
shortly after quitting teaching, that Casey met his wife
to be, Mary Briscoe.
Leo moved to Dublin in the 1860s where he worked as a clerk
and joined the Fenian movement. He was also a regular contributor
to The Nation, the newspaper of the Young Ireland movement.
It was while writing for this publication that he assumed
Founded by Charles Gavan Duffy, John Blake Dillon and Thomas
Davis, it first appeared in October 1842. Despite costing
6d (six old pennies, about four cent in todays currency)
and continued to be published until 1897 when it was succeeded
by the Weekly Nation.
A noted orator he spoke at political rallys in London, Birmingham
and Liverpool and wrote for a number of publications in
Casey was imprisoned in Mountjoy Jail for his part in the
unsuccessful rebellion of 1867 and though he was released
eight months later, the treatment he received there broke
Held without trail for eight months during which time he
was brutally treated and malnourished and died two years
later. A public inquiry was held into the cause of Caseys
death after Dr. Robert McDonnell, the prison doctor, publicised
the extent of his injuries.
The doctor wrote, others fell victims after their
release on grounds of broken health or otherwise, to the
debility or disease engendered in prison, amongst them being
a young poet of much promise, J.K. Casey.
In November 1867, Leo Casey was released from prison on
condition that he would leave Ireland for good. Rather than
head for pastures new, he opted to live under the authorities
noses in Cork Street, Dublin posing a Quaker by the name
In the remaining two years of his short life he continued
to write songs and poems for a variety of publications and
travelled the length and breadth of the country addressing
meetings, before the burden took its toll.
An estimated 50,000 people participated in his funeral procession
to Glasnevin Cemetery, including many who walked from Roscommon,
Longford and Laois to pay their last respects, while some
accounts claim 100,000 more lined the streets of Dublin.
In a preface to his most famous work, Leo wrote, Every
man is bound to love his country, and to try and serve her
in her day of trial
According to William Butler Yeats, he was one of three poets
who published much of their best work during the Fenian
movement; Charles Kickham, Ellen OLeary sister of
the Fenian leader John OLeary and the subject of this
article, whom he refers to as John Casey.
Yeats noted their work was at times very excellent,
but added their verse, curiously enough, lacks, the
oratorical vehemence of Young Ireland and is very plaintive
Aside from his political compositions, Casey also wrote
about the characters around Ballymahon and a number of romantic
poems. It is estimated that he wrote approximately 86 songs
during his short life.
In the preface to a collection of his works published in
the 1930s, editor Flann Fitzgerald noted, His language
is simple, it became an easy currency in the world of farms
and fairs and popular entertainment, for the poet never
lost sight of his audience and never threw off the acquired
air of the successful schoolmaster, namely that of continuous
In the 1890s, a celtic cross was erected on Leo Caseys
grave by the National Monuments Committee and in August
2002, a memorial in Leo Caseys honour was unveiled
at Shrule Bridge, Ballymahon and a collection of his writings
was published for the first time in over a century.
Broadcaster Ciaran MacMathuna, presenter of the Sunday morning
programme Mo Cheol Thu on RTE Radio 1 did the
honours. A bronze plaque was also unveiled on the school
house in the village of Kenagh. The GAA grounds in Ballymahon
are dedicated to his memory.
Taken from Maroon & White 2004