Dermot Keogh obituary: Historian, author and advocate for displaced people

UCC academic’s work influenced his field, public knowledge, the State and thousands of students

Born May 12th, 1945

Died September 6th, 2023

Prof Dermot Keogh, who has died aged 78, was a prolific historian and author, a former journalist and an advocate for oppressed and displaced people.

He is most closely associated with Cork, although he grew up in Kilbarrack, Dublin, the first of eight children born to Bill and Maureen Keogh. Living conditions were harsh in the mid-1940s and his father had many jobs, including the running of a small factory. His mother had worked in the Department of Justice before the marriage bar forced her to give it up. She passed on her love of reading to Dermot, and both parents placed a high value on education. They also instilled a keen sense of social justice in their children, which may have influenced his decision to join the Divine Word Missionaries in Roscommon. After four years, he realised it was not the life for him, and he left the religious order.


However, the experience shaped him in many ways, giving him lifelong friends, an interest in liberal theology and a fascination with Latin America. He returned to Dublin and studied history in University College Dublin. This was where he first met fellow arts student Ann Grainger, from Dublin. They would become inseparable, raise four children together and enjoy a marriage that lasted more than 50 years.

He joined the Irish Press group of newspapers in 1970 to fund his continuing studies, and soldiered at the subeditors’ desk with John Banville, another lifelong friend. The author and Booker prize winner said Dermot Keogh was that rarest of phenomena: a good man. “He was steely when he needed to be, especially in his political and social convictions, but in person he was a delight, possessed of the driest wit and the largest generosity of spirit,” he said. “Our lives are the poorer for his passing.”

In 1976 he returned to academia at the European University Institute in Florence. He was the first graduate of its history and civilisation doctoral programme.

He was drawn back to journalism on his return to Ireland and joined RTÉ. He travelled to San Salvador with Bishop Eamon Casey to cover the funeral of murdered archbishop Óscar Romero in 1980. The funeral came under attack and dozens of mourners were killed in front of him.

“Our lives are the poorer for his passing,” said Booker prize winner John Banville

In his book Romero: El Salvador’s Martyr he wrote about witnessing the stampede of more than 100,000 people after explosions rang out. “Most distressing of all was the moment of lucidity simultaneously with the first explosion when there was the collective realisation that people were going to be killed. And then people actually were being killed, many of them from heart attacks or trampled underfoot,” he wrote.

He and his wife quietly helped many refugees who fled from El Salvador, and from Argentina at a time when people were being “disappeared” by the military regime. His friend from his Roscommon days, Fr Pat Rice, was kidnapped and tortured in Argentina before being released in 1976.

A big turning point in his life came when he was offered a lecturing job in University College Cork in 1970. He would go on to enjoy a 30-year career in the university’s history department. He was Jean Monnet Professor, and later became head of the history department. He was described as “part of the fabric of UCC” by its president, Prof John O’Halloran, who said he “made a huge contribution to our understanding of 20th-century Ireland”.

Online condolences were peppered with grateful messages from his former students. They paint a picture of a kindly and generous mentor whose enthusiasm for his subject was infectious. Former students included Tánaiste Micheál Martin, who remembered him as “a great friend and a mentor, and a prolific writer with strong ethics in terms of his analysis of history and politics, particularly on the church and state issue, and on the Irish Constitution, among others”.

International human rights lawyer and UCC graduate Dr Christine Ryan wrote that he was “the absolute best type of academic” because his work influenced his field, public knowledge, the State and thousands of students.

President Michael D Higgins, who was a personal friend, described Prof Keogh as “as one of our finest historians” and singled out his work on South America and El Salvador. “Among his other most valuable contributions was his publications on Irish diplomatic relations with the Vatican, his time as editor of foreign policy archives for the RIA, [Royal Irish Academy] and his important work on Jews in 20th-century Ireland.”

When he was researching Jews in Twentieth Century Ireland, he was moved to discover Department of Justice documents that had been handwritten by his mother during her days as a civil servant.

He was the author of more than a dozen books, including a biography of Jack Lynch, and the co-author, or editor, of many more. He and his wife were a formidable team. She was a secondary schoolteacher but also helped him with his research and proof-read every book and article before publication. They co-wrote the biography of Bertram Windle, the first president of University College Cork in 2010. He liked to say his family was his greatest work and meeting his wife was his greatest achievement.

He continued reading until the end, asking for Claire Keegan’s new book, So Late in the Day, four days before he died

His work garnered many awards and honours and requests to lecture abroad. He was Fulbright Professor in California, Woodrow Wilson Fellow in Washington DC and visiting professor at Cornell University.

Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, professor emeritus in history at NUI Galway, said he greatly admired the range and originality of Keogh’s research and scholarship and his prodigious output, but also his friendship and many kindnesses.

His home was full of books, and he was constantly encouraging those close to him to read more. He continued reading until the end, asking for Claire Keegan’s new book, So Late in the Day, four days before he died. It was brought to the altar during his funeral, as well as his beloved Panama hat, which accompanied him and Ann on their many travels around the world. A copy of the Beano comic recalled his sense of fun and the joy he got from spending time with his grandchildren.

As a schoolboy he played soccer for Ireland, but he loved to watch all sports and always followed the fortunes of the Dublin GAA team. His time in Florence gave him a fine appreciation of art, and he was a keen supporter of young artists. He had a long association with the Cork Printmakers Gallery and the Glucksman Gallery.

Looking back on his life, three years ago, he told a gathering at UCC that 30 years teaching in UCC was a privileged way to spend his professional life. “It was particularly rewarding to meet many people who made history and who made this country – be they political leaders or rank-and-file trade unionists, farm labourers or others who helped bring the State into existence,” he said.

Prof Keogh is survived by his wife Ann, children Eoin, Niall, Aoife and Clare, daughters-in-law Caroline and Liz, sons-in-law Marco and Barry, nine grandchildren and his siblings Anne, Liam, Brendan, Mary, Declan, Fiona and Barry.