Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Keaney, Paul Francis (1888–1954)

by F. D. Shortill

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Paul Francis Keaney (1888-1954), Christian Brother, was born on 5 October 1888 at Corralskin, Kiltyclogher, Leitrim, Ireland, son of Terance Keaney, farmer, and his wife Mary, née McGowan. He helped on the farm before migrating in 1911 to Australia where he worked on the land in northern New South Wales and probably as a policeman in Queensland. His sister Christina, a Dominican nun, influenced him to become a novice with the Christian Brothers in Sydney in 1916. Keaney chafed under the rigid rules of the novitiate, but next year was appointed to St Vincent's Orphanage, South Melbourne. Here he advocated more enlightened methods of training orphans.

In 1919 Keaney moved to Perth, to the St Peter's Intermediate Orphanage and farm for boys at Clontarf. He then taught at Christian Brothers' College, Fremantle, before returning to Clontarf as superior in 1924. In 1927 he helped to develop St Mary's Agricultural Farm School at Tardun, 300 miles (483 km) to the north, for the boys' further training. He lived primitively, on black tea, damper and kangaroo meat, while building and labouring. Of his clothes he remarked, 'Well you can't expect me to run a farm and build a monastery dressed up like a model'. Keaney was a 'big stout man with the neck of a bull', a mop of white hair and rosy face. Building materials were improvised: old tram and train rails, sweepings from the cement works. During the Depression he enlisted the help of wage-earners, who gave small donations and voluntary work, and of the wealthier who provided money, skills and influential contacts. Though abstemious, Keaney was a jovial host and raconteur.

In 1930-35 he taught again at the Brothers' colleges in Perth and Fremantle. He then returned to Clontarf as superior. When the property was requisitioned by the Royal Australian Air Force in World War II, most boys were evacuated to Tardun, but a few went to a property near Bindoon to begin the new St Joseph's Farm School. This site was the gift of Catherine Musk. In 1942 he began building there; his pupils, of all religions, later included child migrants. Finances were minimal. State wards often stayed on to work on the farm and buildings and some, at Tardun, were assisted to buy nearby farms.

To Keaney there were no bad boys; his success with the troublesome ones was widely recognized; often they came to him from the courts. He trusted them whatever their record: doors were left unlocked, responsibility was delegated. The peculiarities of a strict, hard-working father endeared him to some. So did his highly picturesque sayings, impatient outbursts and humour. Conversely, some former inmates remember him as a brutal disciplinarian with an ungovernable temper, who neglected their education, exploited their labour and turned a blind eye to sexual abuse of them by other members of the staff. An enthusiast, Keaney was easily depressed by criticism.

In 1945 he went to Tasmania and Melbourne to recuperate from ill health. In 1948 he was back as superior over the pupils at 'Boys' Town', Bindoon. He was appointed M.B.E. and I.S.O. in 1953. Next year he planned to visit Ireland but died at Subiaco on 26 February, two days after a farewell dinner. He was buried at 'Boys' Town', Bindoon, where the chapel has been named for him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. D. Scott (compiler), Biography. Reverend Brother Paul Francis Keaney (Perth, nd)
  • H. Sutherland, Southward Journey (Lond, 1942)
  • D. F. Bourke, The History of the Catholic Church in Western Australia (Perth, 1979)
  • People (Sydney), 13 Jan 1954
  • West Australian, 26, 27 Feb 1954, 7 Oct 1957
  • PR 1810 B/KEA (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

F. D. Shortill, 'Keaney, Paul Francis (1888–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 25 August 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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