Edward Keyes’ Diary:
Little black meticulous diary of a St Malachy’s College student Edward Keyes. This daily record spans between August and September 1914- at the outbreak of the Great War.
While the notebook largely focuses on the College and Edward’s passion for football, it also contains references to friends and neighbours leaving for the trenches.
Our Research into The Little Black Notebook
This little black notebook provides a meticulous daily record of life at St. Malachy’s College by a student, Edward Keys, who came to the College in 1911. The Keys family lived in Hillman Street, Belfast, just a 15-minute walk from the College. Edward Keys was the youngest child of Mary Keys and her sea-faring husband and had three older sisters (Catherine, Sarah and Maggie) and one older brother (James) who all lived with him at Hillman Street. The census records also show that Mary Keys and her husband had two other children who had unfortunately passed away.
The diary spans from August to December of 1914, the first months of the Great War, and contains various references friends and neighbours leaving for the trenches. Keys’ first entry about the War was on 5th August 1914, where he recalls the agonising sight of families saying goodbye to men heading to the front: ‘After dinner, met two chums and went to see Reserves going away – terrible sights’. Interestingly, August 5th 1914 was the date that the German army launched its assault on the city of Liege in Belgium, violating the latter country’s neutrality and began the first battle of World War I.
It is generally accepted that around 200,000 soldiers from Ireland, then a part of the United Kingdom, served the British Army over the course of the war; though there are desputes over the exact figure. Many of these men who fought in the early battles in WW1 were not professional soldiers but volunteers. The War affected the Keys family personally as the day after the reserves left for the front it was revealed by his neighbour, Mr McPhillips, that his father’s ship ‘…was held up in Hamburg by the Germans…’. It was not until the 9th October 1914, that the family received a letter from Mr Keys reassuring them all that he was safe.
Regardless of this tumultuous event happening on Keys’ doorstep, his diary focuses mostly about his life at the College and his great passion for football; things that any child would care about most. Edward Keys was a keen footballer and liked to finish his day at school with a game of football in the College playing fields. He was also a dedicated supporter of Belfast Celtic and commented on the team’s performance every Saturday: ‘Poor Celtic your unbeaten record has fallen! Jack Cowell, you should have scored thrice’.
Edward Keys best subject at school was mathematics and he had a particular fondness for solving complex mathematical problems. After one late night working on his studies, Keys wrote: ‘I am fatigued in mind because for the last couple of hours I have been having a terrific battle with some very nice sums but I conquered – so, no matter’. Despite his love of the subject, Keys did not appreciate it when his maths teacher, Mr Conway, sent him sums to do whilst he was ill. Keys hard work paid off as he won a Mathematical Scholarship to Queen’s University Belfast and graduated at the age of 20, before coming back to teach in St. Malachy’s in December 1918.
Sadly, his brilliant career was cut short when he died on 9th March 1921 at the age of 22 from tuberculosis. Accounts of the time noted that he was a much loved and gifted teacher. A report from the Irish News recorded that:
We deeply regret the death of a young professor from St Malachy’s College, Mr Edward Keys … One might have predicted for him a successful and brilliant career in his new sphere of work…
His funeral was held on 12th March 1921 after a requiem Mass was held in the College Chapel, with all the teachers and many of the students in attendance. The diary was later presented to the College by the Meighan family, after Niall Meighan brought the journal to his history class.
The National Archives of Ireland, ‘Census of Ireland1901/ 1911 and census fragments and substitutes , 1825-51’ (http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/pages/1911/Antrim/Dock_Ward/Hillman_Street/137112/) (13 July 2020); Eamon Phoenix, ‘The diary of Edward Keys: An historical detective story’ in The Collegian (1989), p. 17
 Phoenix, ‘The diary of Edward Keys’, p 17.
 David Fitzpatrick’s estimate of 206,000 men is commonly accepted as the most accurate figure, see David Fitzpatrick, ‘The logic of collective sacrifice: Ireland and the British Army, 1914-1918.’ The Historical Journal 38(4) (1995). p.1017.
 Phoenix, ‘The diary of Edward Keys’: p.17.
 Ibid., p. 18.
 Ibid., p. 19.
 Ibid., p. 18.
 Phoenix, ‘The diary of Edward Keys’, p. 18.
 Ibid., p. 20.
 Ibid., p. 17.