Some notes on the triple life of Thomas Goodwin Keohler

At U 2.256-9, Stephen finds himself enumerating his debts: "Fred Ryan, two shillings. Temple, two lunches. Russell, one guinea, Cousins, ten shillings, Bob Reynolds, half a guinea, Koehler, three guineas, Mrs MacKernan, five weeks' board."

‘Koehler’ has been identified by Ellmann and others as Thomas Goodwin Keohler, who was a friend with whom Joyce corresponded until his death in 1941. Keohler himself died in 1942. Joyce normally used a ‘German’ spelling, Koehler, for his friend’s name, though the family consistently used ‘Keohler’.

Thomas (‘Tom’) Keohler’s family came from Enniscorthy in County Wexford. Tom shared a name with his grandfather, Thomas Goodwin Keohler of Enniscorthy. His father, Joshua William, a Methodist, moved to Belfast, where he was involved in several flour businesses (including Brown and Keohler of Brookfield Flour Mills) and where Tom was born on 19 June 1873. In 1876 the family left for England, where Joshua ran a flour mill in Runcorn, Cheshire (1881 England census). Soon afterwards they returned to Ireland, settling in Dublin. In later life Joshua was a ‘cashier in life assurance’ (1901 census) in Sandymount and by 1911 a ‘retired accountant’.

Tom had four sisters and a brother. At least three of his sisters became teachers and his brother, Robert Nesbitt Keohler, qualified as an accountant, and was a leading light of the Solicitors’ Apprentices’ Debating Society in the 1890s, publishing a short speech on ‘The Decline of Party Government’ in 1898.

Until then Thomas seems to have led a quiet life. In 1896 he applied for the post of Secretary’s Assistant to the Rathmines Commissioners, but was unsuccessful. Soon afterwards he took up a post as Clerk at W. and R. Jacob and Co., Ltd., which he left in January 1902 for ‘the important position of secretary to Messrs. Hely’s, Ltd.’ (Weekly Irish Times 11 January, p. 7), the celebrated Dublin stationers and printers in Dame Street. He was to remain with Hely’s, rising to Company Secretary, until his death over forty years later. Joyce gave Hely’s a prominent place in Ulysses: “He read the scarlet letters on their five tall white hats: H.E.L.Y.S. Wisdom Hely's” (U 8.125-6). Hely’s was also a former employer of Leopold Bloom.

But this quiet, introspective man had other, literary, interests, which blossomed as the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth. He found an association of interest with the Dublin set of George William Russell (Æ): plays, writing, poetry, mysticism, theosophy. He was a founding member of the Irish National Theatre Society in 1903, and acted in an early performance of Yeats’s King’s Threshold at London’s Royalty Theatre in 1904 (alongside Fred Ryan, another of those to whom – with Russell and Cousins - Dedalus was in debt). The play’s leads were Frank Fay, P. J. Kelly, and Seumas O’Sullivan (James Starkey, one of Joyce’s predecessors in Gogarty’s tower at Sandycove, and later editor of the Dublin Magazine). When Æ published the Divine Vision in 1903, it was dedicated to six people, one of whom was Tom: ‘T. K.’ ‘Comrades in the Craft’.

He was writing poetry, of a mystical bent, and was considered to have a promising future in this line. Again he received a helping hand from Æ, as he was one of the eight writers whose poems were selected for Æ’s anthology New Songs in 1904 (Tom had five of his poems published there). ‘Mr Russell, rumour has it, is gathering together a sheaf of our younger poets' verses. We are all looking forward anxiously,’ we are told in the library episode (U 9.290). The group that Æ gathered together in real life included Keohler, along with Padraic Colum, Eva Gore-Booth, Alice Milligan, Susan Mitchell, Seumas O’Sullivan, George Roberts, and Ella Young.

As Secretary to Hely’s Tom was by now maintaining a remarkable double life. In the same year he married an Englishwoman, Agnes Marguerite Baxter, with whom he had a daughter, Katherine Frances.

He branched out even further in 1906 with the publication of his own collection of thoughtful poetry, Songs of a Devotee, part of the prestigiousTower Press series. Of this the Irish Times wrote:

They are twenty-eight songs in number, and they reveal an earnest, genuinely poetic mind, which has many interesting thoughts, and endeavours to express them in adequate shape.

Irish Times 29 June, p. 7

By now Keohler was also diversifying into journalism. He published essays in the new Irish review Shanachie, published by Joseph Maunsell Hone from his press in Middle Abbey Street in Dublin. He wrote for John Eglinton’s Dana, and he contributed non-political pieces for Arthur Griffith’s United Irishman and later Sinn Fein. He was a quiet man with a lot to say.

Shortly after the outbreak of war in 1914 he and his brother Robert, the Dublin solicitor, made the following announcement in the Irish Times:

Notice of Change of Name. We, Thomas Goodwin Keohler, of 28 Dame street [Hely’s address], Dublin, and Robert Nesbitt Keohler, of 23 Albert road, Glengeary, County Dublin, and 46 Kildare street, Dublin, Solicitor, do hereby give notice that we have assumed, and intended henceforth upon all occasions and at all times to sign and use and be called and known by, the surname of Keller, in lieu and substitution for our present surname Keohler, and that such intended change or assumption of name is formally declared and evidenced by a Deed Poll under our hand and seal dated this day, and intended to be forthwith enrolled in the High Court of Justice in Ireland, in testimony whereof we do hereby sign and subscribe ourselves by such intended future name.

Dated this 5th day of October, 1914.

Thomas G. Keller.

Robert N. Keller.

Witness: Vincent Doyle, 46 Kildare street, Dublin, Solicitor’s Assistant.

Henceforth he was normally known as ‘Thomas Keller’, though he did retain the old name on occasions, for literary purposes. Indeed, his final collection of verses, Timely Utterance, privately printed in 1937, came out under his old name of Keohler. But by then his time had passed, as far as the Dublin public was concerned. The Irish Press writes:

It is many a year since Thomas Keohler’s verse first came to public notice. The Irish literary movement to which he belonged has gone... Thomas Keohler is a craftsman with cold words. Some readers may prefer fire for the forging, but the deftness of his verse cannot be denied.

Irish Press 12 May, p. 6

His father survived to see Tom’s success both in the business and the literary world, dying in 1915 and leaving the respectable estate of £14,000. Tom’s wife Agnes died in 1929, and Tom remained at Hely’s. Joyce continued to correspond with Tom through the years, doubtless interested in the vagaries of literary fortune to which his old friend was subject. Tom died at his home, 12 Charleville Road, Rathmines, on 26 May 1942, leaving an estate of £4,383 according to the Irish Times (but only £434 according to the Belfast probate registry).

And that might have been the end of Thomas Goodwin Keohler (Keller) but for a brief notice in the Irish Times on the occasion of the death of Keohler’s publisher Joseph Maunsell Hone:

Obituary. Mr. Joseph Maunsell Hone... Among his contributors [to Shanachie] in both prose and verse were W. B. Yeats, Seumas O’Sullivan, sometimes under his other pseudonym, ‘J. J. Orwell’, and Thomas Keohler, sometimes under his pseudonym ‘Michael Orkney’.

Irish Times 27 March 1959, p. 7

Again we come back to Joyce. The name ‘Michael Orkney’ was known to Joyce, and crept into a discarded fragment of Finnegans Wake. Finn Fordham notes:

This fair copy of the whole he sent to Harriet Shaw Weaver on 7 March 1924, describing it as 'a chattering dialogue'.

Well, there once dwelt a local hermit, Michael

Orkney, they say was his name.

(Lots of fun at Finnegans wake: unravelling universals (2007) p. 70)

The Irish Press of 23 April 1943 knows a story:

The Boat Race!... Michael Orkney (an eminent Irish author under a nom-de-plume) once told how he endured much battering at an English school for declining to wear either the dark or the sky-blue ribbon. (p. 4)

And we know that Keohler must have been at school in England while his father was managing the flour mill in Runcorn in Cheshire. If we take this attribution at face value (and there seems no reason not to), then we should look at Michael Orkney’s literary output. (It may or may not be relevant that the letters of Keohler’s surname are hidden in the pseudonym.)

The pseudonym gives Keohler an opportunity to publish in a slightly less poetic vein, whilst still at times maintaining the association with mystical subjects. Alongside the essayist Keohler, Orkney writes for Hone’s Shanachie, with Æ, Lady Gregory, Synge, ‘Seumas O’Sullivan’, and others. He offers short stories: ‘The lost genius’, a mystical tale appearing in the first volume (pp. 116-24); ‘An Idle hour with a Cyclopedia’ in the Winter number of 1907 (Keohler and James Cousins had appeared in the Spring number). While Keohler is perhaps less to be seen now, Orkney takes over. He offers ‘The Poetry of Sir Samuel Ferguson’ to the December 1907 issue of the New Ireland Review, and contributes many articles under the name ‘Michael Orkney’ to the Irish Independent between 1907 and at least 1910. The Sunday Independent of 6 March 1910 announces the ‘grand St. Patrick’s Day Number of the Weekly Independent’, in which:

Michael Orkney, in his article ‘The Poet’s Vision of Ireland’, gives a fascinating survey of ‘Contemporary Patriotic Poetry’. (p. 10)

Earlier contributions to the Irish Independent had covered ‘A Famous Irish Dramatist’ [George Farquhar], ‘The Flight of the Earls’, ‘Anglo-Irish poetry’, Robbie Burns, ‘Turkey: a six Century old Empire’, ‘Persia: a Constitutional Crisis’, ‘William Butler Yeats; a Character Sketch’, and many others. Orkney (‘of Rathmines’) wrote to the Irish Independent on 30 March 1907 in support of an idea for a poets’ corner on St. Stephen’s Green, to create a central resting place for Ireland’s poets; on 14 May 1908 he sent the paper two old limericks ‘clipped from ‘The Musical World’:

They relate to Balfe and Wallace, and are so bad that their author, if still living, should be killed hurriedly. Far more to our taste is a delicate sonnet by Mr. Orkney himself, suggesting that the music of Balfe lacks the earnestness to touch the deeper chords of Irish feeling. (p. 4)

In the 1920s he is reinvigorated, writing letters to the Irish Times (in support of modern art) and the Spectator (this time giving his address at 42 Ashdale Road, Terenure, Dublin).

When Seumas O’Sullivan established the Dublin Magazine, Orkney was involved straightaway, publishing ‘Poetry Utterances’ and six short poems (‘The perfect scheme of things I dreamed..’) (vols 1-3 passim). He also contributed regular brief book reviews (sometimes as ‘Michael Orkney’ and sometimes just as ‘M. O.’). The Irish Times (3 April 1926) particularly likes ‘a charming bit of prose on ‘The Supremacy of Music’, by a contributor whose unfamiliar initials conceal the scholarly personality of Michael Orkney’.

Music was Keohler’s first love. In a literary and biographical memorial of Keohler for the Dublin Magazine in 1942 his friend H. F. Norman wrote that:

His heart was set on music and his father, who had no surplus wealth, offered to give him the means of making it his career. Tom refused. He felt it would tax his father unduly.

(“Unheard Music: a Memory of Thomas Goodwin Keller”, pp. 26-31)

Keohler is forgotten today except in the footnotes to the works of greater writers. His name survives in the Dictionary of Irish Biography through two relatives (Walter Keohler Beckett, composer, musician, and writer, son of Tom’s younger sister Elizabeth Ethel and James Walter Beckett – Samuel Beckett’s cousin), and the fashion designer Pauline Clotworthy (Cecily Elizabeth Keohler), daughter of his brother Robert). But he deserves a thorough appreciation himself, not just as a friend of the great, but as a poet who caught the spirit of the time for ten short years at the beginning of the twentieth century and used several voices, often disguised, to offer his own interpretation of the life of the mystical maker in Dublin’s past.

Eamonn Finn and John Simpson


New Songs (1904):

Songs of a Devotee (1906):

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