Kearney was born at 68 Lower Dorset Street, Dublin in 1883, he often walked along Gardiner Street to the Custom House and along the Quays. His father was from Louth and his mother was originally from Meath. He was educated at the Model School, Schoolhouse Lane and St Joseph’s Christian Brothers School in Fairview, Dublin. He left school at the age of 14, becoming an apprentice house painter.
Kearney joined the Gaelic League in 1901, and joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1903. He taught night classes in Irish and numbered Sean O’Casey among his pupils. He found work with the National Theatre Society and in 1904 was one of the first to inspect the derelict building that became the Abbey Theatre, which opened its doors on 27 December of that year. He assisted with props and performed occasional walk-on parts at the Abbey until 1916.
Kearney was a co-founder of the Irish Volunteers in 1913. He took part in the Howth and Kilcoole gun runnings in 1914. In the Easter Rising of 1916 Kearney fought at Jacob’s biscuit factory under Thomas MacDonagh, abandoning an Abbey Theatre tour in England in order to take part in the Rising. He escaped before the garrison was taken into custody.
He was active in the War of Independence. On 25 November 1920 he was captured at his home in Summerhill, Dublin and was interned first in Collinstown Camp in Dublin and later in Ballykinler Camp in County Down.
A personal friend of Michael Collins, Kearney at first took the Free State side in the Civil War but lost faith in the Free State after Collins’s death. He took no further part in politics, returning to his original trade of house painting. Kearney died in relative poverty in Inchicore in 1942.
He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. He was survived by his wife Eva and two sons, Pearse and Con.
Kearney’s songs were highly popular with the Volunteers (which later became the IRA) in the 1913-22 period. Most popular was “The Soldier’s Song”. Kearney penned the original English lyrics in 1907 and his friend and musical collaborator Patrick Heeney composed the music. The lyrics were published in 1912 and the music in 1916. In 1926, four years after the formation of the Free State, the Irish translation, “Amhrán na bhFiann”, was adopted as the national anthem, replacing God Save Ireland. Kearney was not paid royalties for his contribution to the song, although the original handwritten lyrics would sell for €760,000 many decades after his death.
Other well-known songs by Kearney include “Down by the Glenside (The Bold Fenian Men)”, “The Tri-coloured Ribbon”, “Down by the Liffey Side”, “Knockcroghery” (about the village of Knockcroghery) and “Erin Go Bragh” (Erin Go Bragh was the text on the Irish national flag before the adoption of the tricolour).
Kearney’s sister Kathleen was the mother of Irish writers Brendan Behan and Dominic Behan, both of whom were also republicans and songwriters. Brendan Behan was in prison when Kearney died, and was refused permission to attend his funeral. In a letter to Kearney’s son, Pearse, he said, “my Uncle Peadar was the one, outside my own parents, who excited the admiration and love that is friendship.”
“Erin Go Brah”: http://youtu.be/iEWlpP3RIW8