MY FAMILY HERO
Ann Kissane’s ancestor Michael Keane escaped poverty and famine in County Kerry to become a celebrated statesman
Ann Kissane’s ancestor Michael Keane escaped poverty in County Kerry to become a celebrated statesman in India
In 1874, Michael Keane was born into a family of seven children, whose parents were tenant farmers. Fifty years later, he was a knighted diplomat governing the Indian province of Assam and living in a palatial mountain residence.
How did the son of Irish farmers achieve such a meteoric rise? This question has intrigued Ann Kissane, who is a relative on Sir Michael’s mother’s side.
“I started my family research 15 years ago and linked to my cousin Eily Walsh’s tree,” says Ann. “Scanning through the names, I noticed that one of my grandfather’s cousins was called Sir Michael Keane. I wasn’t aware of any relatives who had been knighted, so I decided to dig deeper.
“The website Irish Genealogy ( irishgenealogy.ie) was very helpful. I also found obituaries in newspapers and journals, which helped to build a picture of his life.”
Michael’s parents were Jeremiah Keane and Mary Kissane. The family lived near the small town of Barraduff in County Kerry. They were farmers who survived the terrible famine by digging up peat and selling it in Limerick for fuel. “They had very little money, but at least they had enough to eat.”
Michael was able to escape this hand-tomouth existence through brains and a brilliant education. “He was awarded a scholarship to Blackrock College, Dublin, where he won a first-class prize that funded further education at Clongowes. After winning the Senior grade Gold Medal, Michael progressed to university. Both colleges were top independent schools in Ireland at the time – it’s some achievement.”
In 1898, Michael joined the Indian Civil Service (ICS) and was posted to the North West Frontier of British India. The ICS was the small, elite civil service that controlled the Raj, and many of its officers came from upper-class backgrounds or Oxbridge. The entrance exams were notoriously tough. In India, ICS officers had responsibility for government activity across vast provinces.
Life in India must have suited Michael because after serving as Under Secretary to the Government until 1907, he became Settlement Officer in Rajputana (modernday Rajasthan) in 1910. Later, he reached the rank of Deputy Commissioner.
“He married Joyce Lovett Thomas in India in 1911 and they had three children, Denis Michael, Joyce Criena and Pamela Kissane. She was always known as ‘Kissane’.”
Michael remained in Rajputana until 1919 when he became Judicial Secretary and later Chief Secretary to the United Provinces Government. To give an idea of the responsibility involved in this post, this vast area encompassed portions of the Himalayas, the great Gangetic Plain and parts of the hill systems of Central India.
In 1921, Michael was appointed President of the Legislative Council and held further senior positions until 1932, when he succeeded Sir Egbert Hammond as Governor of Assam. The province was on India’s North-East Frontier and encompassed 51,000 square miles.
Michael had become one of the country’s leading politicians and was knighted that year. His daughters were even presented to King George V at court.
“Sir Michael and Lady Keane were popular in Assam and took a deep interest in the welfare of local people. The cause of women was always in their minds and they supported the Ganesh Das Women’s and Children’s Hospital. Joyce became a patron of a girl’s school in Shillong and it is still there today, Lady Keane College for girls.
“Sir Michael remained as Governor until spring 1937, when I believe he retired due to ill health. He died on 10 August at his home in Norfolk. A requiem mass was held for him in Westminster Cathedral and this was celebrated by his brother, Father John Keane. His other brother became Bishop Patrick Keane of Sacramento.
“It’s mindboggling that a man from such humble origins could rise to become a leading statesman.
“I’m so proud that he found the confidence to do so. The Kissanes are having a family gathering this summer in Kerry with more than 2,000 members of the family travelling across the world to meet. We’ll have so much to talk about, especially the inspiring life of Sir Michael Keane.” Gail Dixon
It’s mind-boggling a man from such humble origins could rise to become a leading statesman
Sir Michael Keane’s residence while Governor of Assam, India