John Kells Ingram was born in County Donegal in 1823. His ancestry was Scottish Presbyterian, but his grandparents had converted to Anglicanism. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, the most prestigious academic institution in nineteenth-century Ireland. In a brilliant academic career spanning over fifty years he proceeded to occupy a succession of chairs at the college. His published work included an important History of political economy (1888), and he delivered a significant presidential address to the economics and statistics section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1878). Ingram influenced, and was respected by, many contemporary social and economic thinkers in the British Isles and elsewhere. In an obituary one of Ingram’s friends exaggerated only slightly in describing him as ‘probably the best educated man in the world’.
Yet contemporary perspectives on Ingram’s career were warped by one act of his youth which was to create a curious disjunction in his life. In 1843, when only nineteen years old, Ingram was a sympathiser with the nationalist Young Ireland movement. One night, stirred by the lack of regard shown for the Irish rebels of 1798 by the contemporary O’Connellite nationalist movement, he wrote a poem entitled ‘The memory of the dead’, eulogising these ‘patriots’. Apparently without much thought, Ingram submitted the poem anonymously to the Nation newspaper. It appeared in print on 1 April 1843 and, better known by its first line, ‘Who fears to speak of ’Ninety-Eight?’, became a popular Irish nationalist anthem.