The 1916 Volunteer and ‘The Irish Times’

This newspaper dismissed Edward Keegan when he left his desk to fight in the Easter Rising. Now, to honour him, it has bought his 1916 medal to put on permanent display


The past surfaces in different ways. In January this year, in New York, the auction house Spink advertised the sale of the “Liberty Collection”: medals, uniforms, documents and other items related to the Easter Rising. Among them was a 1916 medal awarded to Edward Laurence Keegan, with a guide price of $3,000- $4,000 (€2,600-€3,500).

A century ago Keegan quietly absented himself from his clerical job in the advertising department of The Irish Times and went out to fight with the Irish Volunteers, which he had joined in 1914. He was a member of the 4th battalion of the Dublin brigade.

On Easter Monday, while fighting with the South Dublin Union garrison, under the command of Éamonn Ceannt, he was shot in the lung. By the time Keegan emerged from hospital, on August 25th, the newspaper had dismissed him. The Irish Times was a very different organisation a century ago, and largely reflected a unionist ethos.

Keegan died in 1938; he was awarded his medal posthumously, in 1941, in recognition of his military service during Easter Week 1916. It was accepted by his wife, Emily.

It is not clear how the medal ended up for auction in New York; when it did, The Irish Times, in consultation with members of the Keegan family, bought it. This week it was unveiled in the Irish Times Building, in Dublin – an intersection of our national history with the commemoration of a former colleague.

Declan Kiberd, the academic and literary critic, is a great-nephew of Keegan. He says his great-uncle would be amused that his role in the Rising is being marked by the employer that dismissed him for his participation in it. As Kiberd points out, Keegan had given up an acting career in favour of his newspaper job. “He was offered a full-time acting role at the Abbey Theatre by WB Yeats,” Kiberd says. “He turned it down because he thought The Irish Times offered a more secure future.”

Keegan, who had been acting part time, had the distinction of being part of the Abbey cast for the first performance of Yeats’s play An Baile’s Strand, in 1904.

Keegan was also a sporting man. He was the first captain to be elected of the St Laurence O’Toole hurling club, in 1901, and was a founder member of its Gaelic League branch.

The choreographer Michael Keegan- Dolan, the creative director of the former Fabulous Beast dance company, is also a great-nephew of Keegan. He grew up hearing stories about his great-uncle and his involvement in “fighting for freedom”, and, although Keegan-Dolan never met his great-uncle, Keegan had such an impact on his life that, at 19, the younger man decided to add Keegan to his own surname. “I changed it to honour the Keegan side of the family and my great-uncle,” he says.

What Keegan-Dolan had not realised was his great-uncle’s connection with the performing arts. “I was in London, doing a show at the Barbican – Giselle, set in the Irish midlands – and I was interviewed by the Guardian. After it was published I had a letter at the stage door from Joan Pinhorn, asking me was I related to Edward Keegan and telling me that she was his granddaughter.

“Her father, Malachi, had been a stage manager at the Abbey. She told me all about him, and the connection Edward had had with the stage. I never realised Edward had acted in Yeats’s plays at the Abbey or that he knew Lady Gregory. In that moment, when I made the connection, my whole life kind of made sense: my great-uncle was not just a revolutionary but a theatre man too.”

Keegan-Dolan is hoping to create a piece of dance based on his great-uncle’s life, to honour the men and women who participated in the Easter Rising. “My time will come to do that,” he says.

The first he heard of the 1916 medal was a report in this newspaper soon after the auction, which his mother saw and told him about. He has not been to visit his great-uncle’s grave in Glasnevin. “I don’t need to,” he says. “I carry him in my DNA.”

Keegan’s grave was tracked down by one of his grandsons, Ian Gourley. “I started looking for his grave about 15 years ago. I went to Bishop Street, to the National Archives. Then, because I knew he had a war wound, I went to Cathal Brugha Barracks and asked if they had any records of him. They told me to try Renmore Barracks, in Galway.”

Renmore said it had had a file on Keegan but that, “unfortunately, it had gone missing”. A year or so later, however, “a rather large buff envelope arrived in the post, with all the details of his military pension and other bits and pieces”.

It was at that point, within the past decade, that Gourley discovered his grandfather was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, in the same plot as his grandmother and aunt. “In those days they didn’t have money for headstones, so all you find is a mound of soil and maybe a little cross, as a marker.”

Once Gourley found the grave he put up a headstone featuring a Tricolour. Its inscription reads: “Forever in our hearts, Edward Laurence Keegan, grandfather. “C” company 4th Batt., Irish Volunteers South Dublin Union 1916, died 20th September 1938.” The headstone also remembers Emily and Kathleen Keegan.

A newspaper report on Edward Keegan’s funeral noted that during the “comrades’ last tribute” to Keegan, by members of his garrison from South Dublin Union (now St James’s Hospital), his coffin was draped in the Tricolour and three volleys fired over the grave.

The celebrant of the funeral Mass was Fr Aloysius Travers, a Capuchin priest, who had administered the last rites to Patrick Pearse and James Connolly.

It has been a significant year for Edward Keegan’s descendants. On Easter Monday several of them gathered at the Abbey Theatre for the unveiling of a plaque, in the foyer, at the foot of the theatre’s staircase, to mark the participation in the Rising by 16 of its actors, playwrights and other staff. Keegan’s is among the names.

Before the ceremony members of the family gathered at Wynn’s Hotel, nearby. It was there that Ian Gourley and Joan Pinhorn, who are first cousins, met for the first time in 68 years. “The last time I met you, you punched me in the nose,” Pinhorn said to her cousin, who was a child when they had last met.

Gourley is not sure how his grandfather’s medal ended up in New York. He had never seen it as a child but was aware that a medal had been awarded at some point. There had been a robbery at the old family home in the 1970s, and it was never clear what had been taken. When he learned that the medal was up for auction he contacted Spink; it told him that the medal had changed hands more than 20 times.

The person who put the medal up for auction, as part of the Liberty Collection, is understood to be a private US-based collector who amassed his collection over several years. Although the exact whereabouts of Keegan’s medal over the past few decades may never be known, what is certain is that it has been repatriated and will soon go on public display in the Irish Times Building.

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