Keogh, William Nicholas (DNB00)

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KEOGH, WILLIAM NICHOLAS (1817–1878), Irish judge, belonged to a Roman catholic family formerly settled at Keoghville, co. Roscommon. He was born at Galway on 7 Dec. 1817. His father, William M. Keogh, was a solicitor, and sometime clerk of the crown for the county of Kilkenny; his mother was Mary, daughter of Mr. Austin Ffrench of Rahoon, co. Galway. He was educated at the school of the Rev. Dr. Huddard in Mountjoy Square, Dublin, then in high repute, entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1832, and obtained honours in science in his first and second years. He left in his third year without having taken a degree. While at Trinity he was a frequent speaker in the debates of the Historical Society, and was awarded the first prize for oratory at the age of nineteen. In Michaelmas term 1835 he was admitted a student of the King's Inns, Dublin, and in Michaelmas term 1837 of Lincoln's Inn. In Hilary term 1840 he was called to the Irish bar, and joined the Connaught circuit, where his family connections lay. In the same year he published, in conjunction with Mr. M. J. Barry, ‘A Treatise on the Practice of the High Court of Chancery in Ireland,’ but he never obtained any considerable practice in that court. His natural gifts were those of an advocate rather than of a lawyer; a powerful voice, an impressive face, and impassioned delivery were combined with a ready flow of vigorous and ornate language.

He soon acquired a fair practice, principally on circuit, where, as a junior, he held leading briefs in the most important cases, and his powers of advocacy were considered so formidable that special counsel were sometimes brought down to oppose him. At the general election of 1847 he was returned for Athlone as an independent conservative, being the only Roman catholic conservative elected to that parliament. After a time he was ranked as a Peelite. In 1849 he was made a Q.C. In 1851 he took an active and prominent part in opposition to the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill passed by Lord John Russell. His action largely increased his reputation and popularity in Ireland. He was the principal speaker at a mass-meeting of Roman catholics held in Dublin in August 1851 to protest against the measure, and was one of the founders of the Catholic Defence Association established in consequence of it. He also took part in the tenant-right movement, speaking at various meetings held in support of it, and in the session of 1852 seconded in the House of Commons the Tenant Right Bill of William Sharman Crawford [q. v.] At the general election of 1852 he was again returned for Athlone. In December 1852 Keogh and the bulk of the Irish party voted in the majority which upset Lord Derby's ministry. In the new ministry of Lord Aberdeen Keogh became solicitor-general for Ireland (December 1852). His acceptance of office gave great offence to the extreme wing of the Irish party, who considered it inconsistent with the speeches which he had made in Ireland during the preceding eighteen months. He was bitterly assailed by Gavan Duffy in the ‘Nation’ and by Lucas in the ‘Tablet,’ and his re-election for Athlone was opposed. His appointment was also distasteful to the conservatives, and was attacked by Lord Westmeath in the House of Lords. At Athlone he was supported by the catholic bishop (Dr. Browne) and clergy, and was re-elected by a large majority. In January 1855 the Aberdeen ministry resigned; a new ministry was formed by Lord Palmerston. Keogh was appointed attorney-general for Ireland and was sworn of the Irish privy council. He was re-elected at Athlone without opposition. In April 1856, on the death of Mr. Justice Torrens, he was appointed a judge of the court of common pleas in Ireland. Among the remarkable cases in which he was counsel while at the bar were Birch v. Somerville (December 1851), an action by the proprietor of the ‘World’ newspaper against the Irish chief secretary on an alleged agreement to pay him for supporting law and order in his paper; Handcock v. Delacour, in the court of chancery (February 1855), a case of a painful nature, involving the title to a large estate in Galway, in which Keogh's reply for the plaintiff was so touching and eloquent as to draw tears from the chancellor; and Reg. v. Petcherine (December 1855), the trial of a Redemptorist monk on a charge of profanely and contemptuously burning a copy of the authorised version of the Bible; Keogh conducted the prosecution as attorney-general.

On the bench he soon acquired the reputation of a judge of ability and discernment. Though not a profound lawyer, he never failed to appreciate a legal argument, and his judgments were clear and to the point. He excelled in the trial of nisi prius cases; his perception was quick, he grasped the facts of the case rapidly, and presented them to the jury with clearness and precision. In 1865 he was appointed, with Mr. Justice Fitzgerald, on the special commission for the trial of the Fenian prisoners at Dublin and Cork, and before them Luby, O'Leary, O'Donovan Rossa, and the other principal conspirators were tried. Luby, in his speech after conviction, acknowledged the fairness of Keogh's summing-up to the jury. In 1872 the celebrated Galway county election petition was tried before him. The candidates at the election were Captain J. P. Nolan (home ruler) and Captain Le Poer Trench (conservative); the former was returned by a large majority. His return was petitioned against mainly on the ground of undue influence exercised on his behalf by the Roman catholic clergy. The trial lasted from 1 April to 27 May, and resulted in Captain Nolan being unseated, and three Roman catholic bishops and thirty-one priests were reported to the house as guilty of undue influence and intimidation. That Captain Nolan was properly unseated on the evidence could hardly be contested, but the judge in the course of his judgment commented on the action of the Roman catholic bishops and priests in terms of unusual severity. His remarks were deeply resented, and aroused much popular feeling. Meetings were held at which he was denounced, he was burnt in effigy in numerous places, and the excitement became so great that special precautions had to be taken by the government for his protection. In the House of Commons Isaac Butt [q. v.], the home-rule leader, brought forward a motion impugning the conduct of the judge; it was defeated by a large majority, only twenty-three voting in its favour (9 Aug. 1872). For the remainder of his life Keogh was the subject of constant attack by the home-rule party. In 1878 his health began to fail, and he died at Bingen-on-the-Rhine on 30 Sept. of that year. During the greater part of his tenure of office he had been one of the most conspicuous figures on the Irish bench. Genial and good-natured, he was popular in private life, where his ready wit and conversational powers made him a most agreeable companion; he possessed an unusually retentive memory, and his fund of anecdote was varied and entertaining.

In 1867 the university of Dublin conferred upon him the honorary degree of LL.D. He married, in 1841, Kate, daughter of Mr. Thomas Roney, surgeon, by whom he had a son (called to the Irish bar in 1871) and a daughter (married to the Hon. Mr. Justice Murphy). Both survived him. In addition to the ‘Chancery Practice’ already mentioned, he was author of two pamphlets, ‘Ireland under Lord de Grey,’ 1844, and ‘Ireland Imperialised,’ and of ‘An Essay on Milton's Prose Writings,’ 1863.

[Law Magazine and Review, November 1878; Ann. Reg. 1878; Times, 2 Oct. 1878; Hansard, 1848–55 and 1872; New Ireland, 1877; Life of Frederick Lucas, M.P., 1886; Galway County Election Petition Judgment, and Minutes of Evidence, Parliamentary Papers (241) of 1872, vol. xlviii.; information from family.]

J. D. F.