John Keegan “Leo” Casey, Irish poet, orator and republican known as the Poet of the Fenians, is born in Mount Dalton, County Westmeath on August 22, 1846. He is famous as the writer of the song “The Rising of the Moon” and as one of the central figures in the Fenian Rising of 1867. He is imprisoned by the English and dies on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1870.
Casey is born to a teacher during the height of the Great Famine of 1846. Eight years later he moves to Gurteen, near Ballymahon in County Longford, when his father is given the post of head master at the local school. His work would come to be closely associated with Ballymahon.
As a teenager Casey works as an assistant to his father and is expected to follow him into teaching. However, he is disillusioned by the insufficiently nationalistic nature of the curriculum and spends a great deal of time writing poetry. It is at this time, reputedly at the age of fifteen, that he writes his best-known song, “The Rising of the Moon,” which commemorates the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
Following the increasing popularity of his songs and ballads at nationalist gatherings, Casey moves to Dublin in the 1860s and becomes active in the Fenian movement. He is a major contributor to The Nation newspaper, for which he assumes his pen name of ‘Leo.’
In 1866, at the age of 20, Casey publishes a collection of poems, entitled A Wreath of Shamrocks. Most of the poems therein had already been published elsewhere, primarily in The Nation. The further fame engendered by the success of the book leads him to be sought after as a speaker. He addresses mass rallies in Dublin, Liverpool and London that year, in the lead up to the Fenian Rising in 1867.
When the uprising fails, Casey is imprisoned without trial for eight months in Mountjoy Prison. He is released on the understanding that he would leave for Australia and not return to Ireland. However, he chooses to stay on in Summerhill, Dublin in disguise, living as a Quaker and continuing to write and publish in secret.
Casey marries Mary Josephine Briscoe in January 1868 and they have a son Michael, who dies shortly after birth in October 1869. Casey’s health had been broken by the treatment he had received in prison. He falls from a cab on or near O’Connell Bridge in the centre of Dublin in 1870. He dies from his injuries on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1870.
Following his death, Casey is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery. The newspapers report that between fifty and one hundred thousand mourners walk in his funeral procession.