So much packed into a short life

The 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.

Best 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. Patrick’s Day 1870.

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 publications.

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 father’s love of country and sense of justice. Luke Casey was active in the Tithe Wars and was reprimanded by his superiors for his activities.

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 academic matters.
Both his sisters became teachers and Leo wanted to follow in his father’s 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 teaching.

Casey’s 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 O’Farrell, 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, e’en still are beating
Hearts in manhood’s 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 his penname.

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 today’s 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 America.

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 his health.

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 Casey’s 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 of Harrison.

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 O’Leary sister of the Fenian leader John O’Leary 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 and idyllic”.

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 repetition.”

In the 1890s, a celtic cross was erected on Leo Casey’s grave by the National Monuments Committee and in August 2002, a memorial in Leo Casey’s 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