In part 41 of this series, Eugene Dunphy tells the story of a Westmeath teenager and a rebel anthem.
On the 18th of February, 1863, the Dublin Weekly Nation published ‘A Lesson’, a poem written in praise of those Polish insurgents who in January of that year, dared to rebel against Russian rule: ‘She is true to the hopes of the gallant departed; She is true to the cries of the crush’d, broken-hearted’. The poem was penned by ‘Leo’, a pseudonym used by sixteen-year-old John Keegan Casey, an exemplary young poet who would soon go on to write ‘The Rising of the Moon’.
The eldest of three children of Luke Casey, a teacher, and Margaret Keegan, John Keegan Casey was born on the 22nd of August, 1846, at Mount Dalton, about ten miles from Mullingar in County Westmeath. Shortly after, Luke received news of a new teaching post in County Longford, the Casey family moved to Gurteen, near Ballymahon, where young John continued to write poetry, and sometimes assisted his dad in teaching classes at the local school.
Described by the Dublin-based newspaper, The Irishman, as ‘a tall, well-built man, with large blue and dreamy eyes, and an oval-shaped face on which there was always an expression of mildness’, John K. Casey got caught up in the tide of nationalism that swept through parts of Ireland in the early 1860s.
He joined the Fenian movement, and on Christmas Eve 1864 the Dublin Weekly Nation published another offering by ‘Leo’, ‘The Rising of the Moon, AD 1798’, a spirited five-verse poem written in praise of the United Irishmen. Though there was no indication as to what melody the poem should be sung, when it was subsequently included in Wreath of Shamrocks, Casey’s collection of original verse published by Robert McKee of Dublin in October 1866, the one-line accompanying note read as follows: ‘Air: The Wearing of the Green’. Thus marked the birth of the ballad, one welcomed by nationalists, but branded as ‘seditious’ by the authorities.
In March 1867, Casey was arrested in County Roscommon, under the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act, and sentenced to eight months in prison. Released from Dublin’s Mountjoy Gaol in November, he returned to Ballymahon, his health in tatters but his spirit intact. In January of the following year, he married Mary Josephine Briscoe, in Marlborough Street Church, Dublin, the couple setting up home in the Summerhill area of the city.
‘The Rising of the Moon’ had now established itself as one of the touchstones of Irish nationalism, and was frequently sung at fairs by travelling ballad-singers, all of whom ran the risk of being arrested under the same Act that put Casey behind bars.
On the 1st of August, 1868, Head-Constable Barry witnessed an impoverished-looking man called Donoghue singing the song in Broad Street, Waterford. He arrested Donoghue on the spot. Brought before Resident Magistrate George Ignatius Goold, Donoghue was severely reprimanded before being released with a caution.