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.
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.
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 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.)
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’.
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
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