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Keogh, Cornelius Brendan (Con) (1921–2011)

by Malcolm Brown

Con Keogh, ordained a priest in Rome in March, 1945, just after the city's liberation, became a doctor of divinity and theology. Described as a ''Young Socrates'', he had a fine ecclesiastical future. But one night in 1953, while driving a group of nuns home from a meeting, he started talking gibberish. He was taken to a St John of God home, where he threw a religious brother through a glass window. He was offered sedation but turned on the brother again. Admitted to a mental hospital, he was diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.

He spent a year there, suffering under what was then quite rudimentary therapy, including electric shock treatment. Padded cells were the norm. Writing about it later, he said he had been left ''shattered, unable to remember, and still very disturbed, stunned and mortally afraid''.

It was a tragedy in one sense, certainly changing his direction in life, but this new direction benefited the world. He sought out a self-help group, and could only find Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). He joined them, and realised the need for a self-help group, based on the AA model, for those recovering from serious mental illness. From that came GROW, which he founded in 1957 and spread internationally.

Cornelius Brendan (Con) Keogh was born on July 13, 1921, the son of a carpenter, Tim, and Maggie (nee Meehan). He spent his childhood in Maldon, Victoria, and when he was 11 the family, with six boys and one girl, moved to Sydney. His mother died soon afterwards. Keogh excelled at school and considered a career as an engineer.

But during a family holiday at Bundeena, his thoughts turned towards a career in the priesthood, and at 18 he entered the seminary at Springwood. After only 18 months he was selected to continue his studies in Rome, and stayed there for 11 years, which included for the entire period of the war.

He was there in 1945 when Allied troops drove out the German forces and became particularly friendly with an Australian airman, Bob Jay, with whom he corresponded.

Keogh returned to Australia in 1951 and was appointed professor of philosophy at the seminary in Springwood. He also taught at the seminary in Manly. But he discovered that his younger brother, Aidan, was suffering from schizophrenia. The family expected Keogh, with all his education and wisdom, to be able to help, but Keogh discovered he could not, and the strain of this pushed him to the edge himself.

After his breakdown, AA ''really got me back on my feet", Keogh said later, in an interview with The Catholic Weekly.

"I got from them the principle of mutual help for the mentally ill." He made friends with others who were, like himself, former mental patients using the services of AA, and they decided to meet on their own in addition to AA meetings. These started in April 1957. "We started with 20 people and we found it a tremendous help in being able to get back into ordinary life," he said. "Week by week we were telling each other how we were changing. We would sit around and speak about our experiences together. Eventually we realised we didn't have to keep coming to the group; we were staying well. After the meetings, which went for about two hours, I would start to write down things that came out of the group. At first we called ourselves Recovery, because we believed that even the sickest people could get well and stay well."

Keogh served as an assistant priest at Darlinghurst, Summer Hill, Lithgow and Manly and was chaplain at Long Bay jail for three years. But from 1968, he devoted himself full-time to GROW, which spread throughout Australia and overseas. He kept the movement non-denominational because he did not want a barrier to anyone seeking help. That brought him into conflict with the cardinal Norman Gilroy, who believed God should be at the centre of the movement, but everyone who dealt with Keogh knew he was a priest and that his faith had helped him in his own recovery and his direction in life. A number of people who benefited from the services of GROW wanted to follow him into the church, and if not doing that, many of those who participated spoke glowingly of the effect it had had on their lives.

As the organisation matured, GROW members learnt of Recovery International, an organisation also created to help people with serious mental illness, and integrated pieces of its will-training methods. Keogh was on a constant round of overseas travel, writing, teaching and speaking engagements. In 1996, following a triple bypass, he started to cut back, and he retired in 2002, but he still spoke at NSW leadership conferences. In 2004, Keogh was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for service to the community.

By 2005, there were 800 GROW groups worldwide, including networks in Australia, New Zealand, America and Ireland.

Con Keogh died on November 24. He is survived by two sisters-in-law, Daisy Keogh and Betty Keogh, three nephews and four nieces.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 December 2011

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Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Keogh, Cornelius Brendan (Con) (1921–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/keogh-cornelius-brendan-con-16701/text28597, accessed 19 August 2019.

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