Long Read: The arrest and trial of ET Keane, editor of the Kilkenny People

Eoin Swithin Walsh

Reporter:

Eoin Swithin Walsh

Long Read:   The arrest and trial of ET Keane, editor of the Kilkenny People

Kilkenny People editor ET Keane making a speech in the Market Yard

As examined last week, the first major drama of the War of Independence era in Kilkenny involved the forced suppression of the Kilkenny People newspaper in August 1919.
This was as a result of its owner and editor, 51-year-old ET Keane, deliberately printing sentences that had been deleted by the censor based in Dublin Castle. The newspaper was reinstated one month later on 13 September 1919.
The story had a follow-up however. The local RIC police, who had clashed with Keane on a number of occasions over the previous years, was not going to let him off that easily.
The police chief for Co Kilkenny was Westmeath native Pierce Charles Power. Needless to say, County Inspector Power would not have been a fan of Keane’s writings.
When on 10 September 1919 the British government banned Sinn Féin, Dáil Éireann, the Irish Volunteers, amongst other advanced nationalist organisations, it offered Power the perfect opportunity to target the men he considered the main ring leaders in the county.
Of course, Edward Thomas Keane of the Kilkenny People was top of Inspector Power’s list.
Police Raids
Therefore, during the morning of Friday, September 12, 1919, a number of police and military raids took place throughout Kilkenny City.
In addition to a raid at the home of ET Keane (St Hilda’s on the Dublin Road), the authorities also targeted the ‘Sinn Féin club’ office on St Kieran’s Street (now Kyteler’s Inn); the Bishop’s Hill home of Councillor/Alderman James Nowlan, then President of the GAA (who ‘Nowlan Park’ is named after); the Walkin Street home of James Lalor (local Sinn Féin secretary/Irish Volunteer officer); and the home of Irish Volunteer leader Thomas Treacy on Dean Street.
Inspector Power believed (incorrectly) that Nowlan was one of the leaders of the secret IRB organisation locally.
This was the second occasion Nowlan had been arrested on the orders of Inspector Power, the first time occurring after the 1916 Rebellion three years previously.
Most of the raids were carried out by Inspector Power’s understudy, District Inspector Spears, although Nowlan’s house was searched by Sergeant Patrick Haran. The purpose of the raids appears to have been to discover anything incriminating.
A local journalist described the scene on Kieran’s Street:
‘The door of the Sinn Féin Club was broken in and a search was made on the premises. Two soldiers with fixed bayonets took up position outside the door, and a party of military also with fixed bayonets occupied the street in front the Club.
“After a lengthy search, during which the apartments of the caretaker were thoroughly ransacked and beds, cupboards etc. pulled about, the raiders departed without taking anything…
“As a matter of fact, the members of the Club are at present almost entirely occupied in work connected with the registration of voters (for the local elections in January.”
Guns discovered
Nothing incriminating was found at the homes of Treacy or Lalor either, but significantly, handguns were found at the homes of ET Keane and James Nowlan, which were confiscated by the authorities. It was only Keane’s wife that was present when their home was raided. When Nowlan’s house was raided, only his sister, who also lived there, and her friend, was present.
County Inspector Power now had a reason to arrest Keane and Nowlan, which was sanctioned by the Solicitor General in Dublin Castle.
Subsequently, three weeks later, on Tuesday September 30 at 6.30 am, the police and military arrived en masse at the homes of Keane and Nowlan.
Both men were arrested and charged with the possession of firearms which was against the Defence of the Realm Act (First World War era legislation). The men were then brought directly to Kilkenny train station where they were escorted onto the 7.45am train to Cork (at this time there was a rail route to Cork from Kilkenny via Ballyragget and Portlaoise, a line which is no longer in use).
Their final destination was Cork Jail, where they arrived later that same afternoon.
The Trial
On Wednesday October 8, 1919, one week after their detainment, Keane and Nowlan’s trial by military court martial took place in Victoria Military Barracks in Cork City (now Collins Barracks).
It was reported in the Kilkenny People that ‘both Mr Keane and Alderman Nowlan arrived (from Cork Jail) in a motor lorry under an escort of soldiers and armed police’ and that ‘Alderman Nowlan has been growing a beard during his time in prison’, while ‘Mr Keane was in anything but his usual health’. The case was presided over by Captain RJ Brett of the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry Regiment.
Keane’s case was first to be tried. Mr A De Renzy defended him with Keane’s Kilkenny-based solicitor John Lanigan also present.
Keane was charged with having in his possession ‘a six-chambered revolver, a five-chambered revolver, and 25 revolver cartridges’. Keane pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The prosecutor, Captain Gover OBE, opening the case for the prosecution, said the evidence was simple and short, suggesting police witnesses would attest to finding the items in Keane’s home. He also mentioned that Keane was ‘the editor of a well-known Irish newspaper’.
Keane’s barrister, De Renzy, objected to this last remark saying that it was ‘irrelevant’ and added; ‘whether the accused was an editor or Prime Minister or anything else had nothing to say to the charge of having arms illegally in his possession’. The Prosecutor stated that the only reason he mentioned it was to highlight that Keane should have been ‘well aware of the Defence of the Realm Proclamation’ because of his profession, which was eventually accepted.
The first witness was Sergeant Patrick Kelly of Kilkenny RIC. He was one of the party who searched Keane’s home and stated that he found the six chamber revolver ‘in a drawer, in a chest of drawers in the sitting room downstairs’, with two of its chambers loaded. In the same drawer he found 22 cartridges.
RIC Constable Doherty then gave evidence stating he found the other revolver in a bedroom upstairs.
Keane’s Evidence
The first handgun was shown to Keane, to which he stated that he had ‘forgotten all about that revolver’.
Keane’s subsequent statement, which was read out to the court, caused quite a stir. The gun in question had been given to Keane by a previous inspector of the Kilkenny RIC! His statement read as follows:
“The revolver has been lying in this house for nearly, as far as I remember, ten or 12 years, and I had forgotten all about it and had not seen it for six years.
“It was produced in a criminal charge [court case] against a man named John Dowling, living at Freshford, ten or 12 years ago. He was charged at Kilkenny Petty Sessions. After that case, which I reported as a journalist, and which had no agrarian or political significance, the revolver remained with Head Constable Frizelle, who gave it to me as a curiosity. I refer you to Mr Frizelle … and he will verify my statement.”
At this stage, quite dramatically, former Head Constable of the Kilkenny RIC, George Frizelle, was called as a witness for Keane’s defence. Frizelle said he had served in Kilkenny for 12 years and that he believed the revolver produced was a revolver he ‘gave to the accused [Keane] some years ago’.
He went on to mention the background to the episode, saying he had ‘occasion to arrest a man for drunkenness’ and ‘that man was mad at the time, and a revolver was found in his possession’. After the court case, Keane had ‘jocularly asked to give the revolver to him’, and Frizelle did so. The witness finished by remarking; ‘leaving politics out of the question, (the) accused was a law-abiding citizen and a respectable man’.
Keane’s second handgun
The next witness called for Keane’s defence was Mary Gertrude O’Keeffe. She was the widow of Keane’s late business partner PM O’Keeffe, whom Keane had founded the Kilkenny People newspaper with back in 1892.
She stated that upon her husband’s death, she ‘gave some of his personal belongings, including a revolver, to the accused… the revolver was similar to the revolver produced (in court), as it had a mother-of-pearl handle’.
Another star witness was called for Keane’s defence; a serving British Army officer, Corporal Laurence Minogue of the Royal Engineers. Minogue said that when he;
“…came to Ireland on holidays he used to stay at (the) accused’s house, and did so still. In June, 1912, while spending his holidays at the accused’s house he found a revolver in a drawer in the library and he took it, brought cartridge’s, and went shooting rooks with it…(afterwards) he put the revolver and unused cartridge back in the drawer.”
De Renzy closed for the defence by stating; “(the) accused might be a Sinn Feiner and believe that a republic was the most suitable form of government for the county. There was a great many other people of the same mind, but that had nothing to do with the case.”
He closed his argument by saying that the onus was on the prosecution to show that Keane had ‘personal and guilty knowledge’, which he believed they had not done, and so must acquit.
James Nowlan trial
The trial of 57-year-old GAA President, James Nowlan, was up next. He was charged with having in his possession a seven-chamber revolver and 12 cartridges, which was found ‘in a press in the kitchen’ at his home on Bishop’s Hill.
Nowlan said that he always had the revolver for protection, as he was ‘in the habit of carrying large sums of money’. His solicitor, M. O’Connor, stated in his defence that;
“As President of the Gaelic Athletic Association, the accused was in the habit of attending hurling and football matches and taking the (gate) receipts. In that way he would have large sums of money on a Sunday evening, when the banks would be closed.”
Nowlan went on to remark that he had a license to carry a revolver. This was dismissed by the Prosecutor who said the licence was taken out nearly 19 years before and never renewed.
In his statement, Nowlan said that ‘the revolver was too small to harm anyone’ and that his objective in having it was to ‘alarm people and bring help if necessary (if anyone attempted to steal the takings from matches)’.
The Verdict
The verdict was announced some days later.
Both Keane and Nowlan were found guilty of all charges. They were sentenced to 28 days in prison, backdated to October 8, 1919 when the court-martial took place. They were, however, released one week early. After the verdict, a message from Keane appeared in the Kilkenny People:
“This charge on which I am arrested is an absurd one.
“The possession of those firearms, one of which I believe to be obsolete and was at most no more than a toy, has been satisfactory accounted for and their existence was forgotten by me.
“There is no man in Kilkenny who by virtue of his occupation and daily habits is more under police surveillance than I… I look upon this as a wanton proceeding and as evidencing the entire lack of brains in the part of the people who are supposed to run the country.”
RIC Police satisfied
The police chief in Kilkenny, PC Power, was quite satisfied with the outcome, noting in his October 1919 report to Dublin Castle that:
“ET Keane, Pres(ident) of the S(inn) F(ein) club, is now completely discredited on account of his having recognised the court martial before which he was recently tried, and also having been released before the expiration of his short sentence.
“He is regarded as a renegade from the principles what he attested and is now an object of public ridicule. Nowlan, Pres(ident of the) GAA, is in a similar plight as regard(s) his action before the Court Martial, and these ‘would be’ Republican leaders may be regarded as ‘fallen angels’.
Conclusion
In truth, Inspector Power was grossly mistaken. If anything, instead of a fall from grace, Keane’s reputation was enhanced having served time ‘for the cause’.
It was positive publicity for the republican movement and was yet another stick to beat the British administration with. It also illustrates the lack of solid police intelligence on the part of the RIC.
Neither Keane nor Nowlan were involved in the military wing of the political movement ie the Irish Volunteers (later renamed the ‘IRA’).
The greatest irony was that the two men who were not arrested - namely Thomas Treacy and James Lalor - were actually the key leaders in the Volunteer movement. Within a few months, both men would be chief organisers of the successful Hugginstown Barracks attack.
Thus, it was highly likely that Keane and Nowlan were telling the truth regarding the guns found in their homes.
We must not view the history of 1919 through the lens of 2019. Gun ownership was much more commonplace than is the case today. Moreover, the weapons found were not in any way hidden. If Keane and Nowlan wanted to use them for ulterior motives they would surely have found better hiding places.
Nonetheless, Keane and Nowlan were technically breaching the law by not declaring that they held these weapons, which gave the local RIC a good excuse to single out the two men they believed to be most important to the revolutionary movement.
In the years that followed, Keane continued to attack British rule in Ireland in his newspaper, and later became a strong supporter of the new Free State. He passed away in 1945 and the Kilkenny People remained in the Keane family until the year 2000. James Nowlan passed away just five years after his ordeal in 1924 and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery, having moved to Dublin in his final years.
As the remaining two years of the War of Independence progressed, with violence increasing substantially, it is probable the Crown Forces looked backwards to the ‘pleasant’ days of 1919 when ET Keane and James Nowlan were the height of their worries.
Eoin Swithin Walsh’s book, Kilkenny, In Times of Revolution, 1900-1923 is available now in all good bookshops or direct from the publishers Merrion Press.

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