Biography:Frank Keane

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Brendan Breathnach, in his article "Petrie and the Music of Clare" [1] has this to say of Irish collector Frank Keane:

A brief entry in a manuscript in the Royal Irish Academy identifies Frank Keane who contributed two airs, a double jig and a caoine to the 1855 volume. Pronsias O’Cathain, alias Francis Keane of Clare, married and living in Dublin (1868-’76) was a lawyer’s clerk and, I believe, mostly self-educated. The manuscript in question is a translation of Paradise Lost, made by Keane himself. Keane submitted two entries in a competition organised by the Royal Irish Academy for a report on the state of the Irish language. He was awarded first prize for his essay on Munster; his account on Ulster was really a second essay on Munster.

The address on the first essay is 29, North Frederick Street, Dublin, and that on the other essay is 20, Newcomen Avenue, North Strand, Dublin. Since he was lawyer’s clerk the first address was most likely that of the office where he worked. In a manuscript collection of literary stories and poems, which he began compiling in the Autumn of 1844, Keane signs himself Francis Keane of Kilfenora, County Clare; otherwise Prionsias O’Cathain ó Baile Atha Cliath anois, acht, roimhe seo, ó Chill-iarrach, Cill-Chaoi, Contae an Chlair, Eirinn.

It is interesting to see that the request for remembrance which Irish scribes were wont to append to their transcriptions is, in Keane’s formula as follows:

“Guidhgidhe lucht, eistighthe, trocaire ó Dia don sgriobhnoir, agus don leithoir leis (pray, listeners, for God’s mercy for the writer and for the reader also). The person capable of reading such manuscripts was designated an “Irishian”, a word still current in the speech of the county to describe a person regarded as good at Irish. These manuscripts were not compiled for their private enjoyment by literary scribes but for the use of the whole community, and a comment by Keane in his essay on the language of Munster, concerning the practice of reading stories from them at gatherings of the people, is worth recording;

They find great pleasure and amusement in reading those manuscripts, especially on winter nights, on which occasions the neighbours of the surrounding districts flock together for the purpose of hearing them read, the reader being often obliged to perform his task with no other light than that of what people commonly called “a sgiolpog of bogdeal” or the light of a bogrush dipped in oil extracted from fish livers.

The reader concluded his reading by speaking the prayer quoted above and his listeners responded with “Amen, a Thiarna.”

Frank Keane contributed a Munster double jig to the 1855 Volume, a tune he had learned from his brother, one of the best professional fiddlers in the south of Ireland. Elsewhere Petrie mentions Keane’s music book as the source of other tunes and Keane is credited with over eighty airs in the complete Petrie collection. His contribution is particularly valuable for the dialogue songs formerly sung by women at comhar for spinning, knitting, sewing or other such co-operative work. It may be said that the versions in the complete collection betray Petrie’s uncontrollable itch for amending airs he received, transposing from sharp to flat keys, effecting rhythmical and even melodic changes.