This is the first in-depth study of the career of Father John Kenyon, a controversial and outspoken Catholic priest in nineteenth century Ireland. Written by Tim Boland.
This is the first in-depth study of the career of Father John Kenyon, a controversial and outspoken Catholic priest in nineteenth century Ireland. A native of Old Thomondgate, Limerick, he entered Maynooth in 1829 and was ordained in 1835 for the diocese of Killaloe. His opinions on physical force and opposition to Daniel O’Connell led to his bishop and suspending him twice from clerical duties. Charles Gavan Duffy wrote of him: ‘He was a man greatly, but unevenly gifted. With more worldly wisdom he might have been a Swift; with more spirituality and fidelity he might, perhaps, have been a Savonarola’.
Tim Boland is a retired primary teacher from Ballinaclough, Nenagh, whose work on Fr John Kenyon earned him an MA in Local History (2004) and PhD (2009) from the University of Limerick.
272 pp. You can purchase this book by contacting [email protected] or by sending €20 direct to Timothy Boland, Ballinaclough, Nenagh, Co Tipperary. Phone 00353-872021680. It is also available on Amazon.
When John Kenyon died in 1869 a dispute arose as to whether he should be buried in Latteragh or Templederry, with both sides of his adopted parish wishing to provide his final resting place. The decision that he should be buried at Templederry was made by the Bishop of Killaloe. Ironically, this was one final occasion on which Kenyon’s own wishes were overruled by a diocesan decision. During his life his strong political ideals had cast him into numerous conflicts with his religious superiors – battles which he rarely won.
As a young newly ordained curate he was removed from Ennis to Tipperary by Bishop Kennedy in 1839, as a result of derogatory comments made by him from the altar. His eloquence and directness caused him serious grief on a number of occasions throughout his life, resulting in his being twice suspended from his clerical duties. However, nationally, he is remembered for his involvement in politics rather than his clerical exploits.
His two passions of politics and religion proved a lethal cocktail that propelled him through the hungry years of the 1840s. His belief that physical force, as a means of achieving national independence, was not contrary to Roman Catholic teaching alienated him from his contemporaries in the Church. It also alienated him from the Repeal Association and its popular leader Daniel O’Connell. It is not surprising that, from its inception, he supported Young Ireland, a nationalist movement set up by Thomas Davis and Gavan Duffy. He was to become one of their strongest advocators of physical force.
Young Ireland was a multi-denominational party which comprised of not only Catholics, but many Protestants and Presbyterians. Their views were far more radical than the conservative Repeal party under O’Connell’s leadership. O’Connell’s significant achievement was Catholic Emancipation in 1829. After that he aimed for Repeal of the Act of Union. It was his failure to progress this goal in a satisfactory manner that encouraged Kenyon to condemn him. This he did on a number of occasions, much to the embarrassment not only of the Catholic Church but also of many of his fellow Young Irelanders.
Kenyon was highly intelligent, well read, and a gifted orator, who used his skills to promote the cause of Young Ireland. From humble beginnings in the organisation he rose to become one of its most influential leaders as rebellion loomed in 1848. He had just spearheaded the reorganisation of the association into a secret society ready for battle and had been given unanimous support by his colleagues. It was then that the greatest challenge of his life confronted him – he was forced by his bishop to choose either Church or Politics. He choose Church.
The dismal failure of the rebellion, his personal dilemma resulting in his non-involvement, along with the devasting horrors of starvation, sapped the ambition and vitality from the Templederry PP. Correspondence with Father Croke (the future Archbishop of Cashel) on the land question displayed a previously absent negativity and hopelessness. Despite two separate nominations for parliament — one for Limerick, and one for Tipperary — the fire never returned to the priest once referred to as ‘the Young Ireland clerical hatchet man’. The only occasion that seemed to rekindle that fire was the funeral of his friend Terence Bellew McManus in 1863. However, his efforts to re-live the Young Ireland era were painfully thwarted. The Fenians were now in control and John Kenyon no longer held influence with nationalist minded Irishmen.
Kenyon’s political power was gone, but his legacy has lived on. This book attempts to portray that legacy — love of God and love of country. Up to now, John Kenyon was alone among the leaders of Young Ireland in that his life has not been extensively chronicled. Lilian Fogarty published Father John Kenyon, A Patriot Priest of Forty-eight, almost one hundred years ago, which included a selection of his letters with some commentary. Prior to that Elizabeth O’Shea Dillon, a frequent visitor at Chapel House, published Dark Rosaleen, a fictional work closely modelled on the life of John Kenyon. Denis Gwynn, a noted Young Ireland scholar and great-grandson of William Smith O’Brien, published articles on Kenyon during the centenary year. Dermot Gleeson, a noted local historian, also published articles on him around the same time.
Two hundred years after the birth of John Kenyon (1812) this work throws new light on the eccentric clergyman/politician whose philosophies, although often controversial, maintain certain relevance in the twenty-first century. For example, he offered some financial advice, possibly far more appropriate in this century than when given in the nineteenth: ‘Money is the algebraist’s x; it may represent nothing.’
THE YOUNG JOHN KENYON
John Kenyon was born on 1 May 1812 at number 5 Old Thomondgate, Limerick. The family lived a comfortable existence in their terraced house which was far superior to the majority of homesteads in the early 1800s. Kenyon’s good fortune was attributable to the fact that his family had, not one, but two business ventures in Old Thomondgate. Patrick Kenyon, John’s father, was a stone mason and ran a successful stone and marble cutting business (1). It appears that his business was substantial and his work distinguished, as he supervised the ornamental stonework during the construction of Sarsfield Bridge (1824-35). Andrew Kennedy, a relative, who worked with Patrick, later took over the business. The Kennedy family were deeply involved in the republican movement. Andrew, mentioned above, (known as old Andrew, the Fenian) was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the 1860s. His grave in Killeely cemetery is marked with a fine monument. John Kennedy, who was still working in the business in 1960, played a prominent role in the War of Independence, and was deeply involved in charitable work throughout his life (2).
The Kenyon family also ran a public house and grocery business, which in later years was looked after by Mrs Kenyon (3). The premises were located within metres of one of the largest sources of employment in the city – the distillery. Established towards the end of the eighteenth century, the distillery covered six acres and produced 300,000 gallons of the best ‘Pot-Still Real Irish Whiskey’ annually. It was owned by Stein & Brown, until sold to Alexander Walker, of the Johnnie Walker Scottish whiskey family, in 1879 (4). It ceased operations in the early years of the twentieth century. About seventy workers were directly employed in the distillery. Inspectors visiting the distillery described it as ‘probably the finest undertaking of its kind in the four kingdoms.’ They remarked upon the excellence of the malting and barley lofts, the malting floors, kilns, mash house and mill, with its six pairs of stones and 30 horse-power steam engine. They also described the cooperage and the shops of the carpenters, engineers, coppersmiths and brass-fitters (5). The steam engine, installed in 1822, was one of the first of its kind to be used in Limerick. Turf to power the engine was brought from a bog at Castleconnell, owned by Stein. Turf-cutters were paid ten pence per day (6). It is quite probable that the Kenyon public house did well in such an industrious area with a population of 3,883 in the parish (7).
Weaving was an important occupation for the women of Thomondgate. While much of the British industry was being transformed from a domestic to a more efficient factory setting, most of the work in Limerick was still done in the home, thus providing a modest prosperity for the people of the area. This home weaving created major ancillary employment in the area with numerous people engaged in the preparation of the raw flax, harvesting, washing, scotching and bleaching. The industry lasted until 1835 when cheap imports from England rendered it uneconomical to continue. Limerick Corporation made grants available to those wishing to emigrate to pursue their trade, and many Thomondgate residents availed of the opportunity and moved to the west of England (8).
The fishing industry was also of importance to the people of Thomondgate. In the 1830s up to forty boats from the area fished the Shannon. Barrack Lane was a mini-Claddagh with every house tenanted by a fisherman (9). An abundance of fish was procured towards the mouth of the river and on the neighbouring coasts, including salmon, trout, eels, perch and pike.
Kenyon’s mother, Mary, was ‘a handsome and graceful woman possessing the uncommon gifts of sympathy and humour’ (10). She was born in the neighbouring parish of St John’s to Peter and Catherine McMahon on 13 January 1789. She married Patrick Kenyon on 12 February 1809. At the age of twenty-three she gave birth to John, her first born. Her second son, Patrick, was born on 11 May 1821. Six years later she gave birth to her first daughter, Alice. Another daughter, Matilda, was born on 29 October 1832, while the youngest, Monica, came into the world on 13 June 1835. There was a third son, Louis, who became an engineer, and emigrated to America. He was among those rescued from a shipping tragedy off the Clare coast in 1850 (11). The ship, bound for America, ran aground on rocks with the loss of many lives (12). Louis never married, and willed his property to the Christian Brothers in Ennistymon, Co. Clare. He died on 7 November 1897.
It seems probable that the Kenyon boys attended the Christian Brothers’ School in Clare Street. The school opened in 1821, the order having arrived in Limerick five years previously. The Christian Brothers did not set up a school in Thomondgate until 1838 (13). The Sisters of Mercy established a girls’ school in the parish in the early nineteenth century which facilitated the Kenyon girls’ education.
In addition to house and commercial property, Patrick Kenyon also owned land at Anne Street and Nelson Street (14). It is not possible to identify when the family moved to Thomondgate, but they had not been in business there fifty years previously (15). Only two Kenyon families lived in the city during the mid-nineteenth century, thus implying that they were not native to the area. During the 1817 mayoral election in Limerick, Patrick’s name was listed, along with numerous other parishioners, as supporting a motion for the re-election of John Verecker as mayor. The Verecker family, who held a firm grip on the administration in the city, were deemed to be corrupt, and were believed to maintain their hold on power by manipulation of the voting system (16). Perhaps the publication of the above mentioned list was in itself a form of manipulation of entire parishes. If that was the case, there is little surprise that in his initial years as a priest, John Kenyon proclaimed the benefits of the private ballot, allowing everyone the right to vote for the person of his choice.
The Kenyons lived in St Munchin’s parish close to the Treaty Stone. St Munchin’s was one of the five original parishes in Limerick, along with St John’s, St Michael’s, St Mary’s and St Patrick’s. The parishioners of St Munchin’s built a chapel outside the walls at Thomondgate in 1744 to replace an earlier mass house. This chapel was close to the site of the present St Munchin’s church. In October 1799 the then parish priest, Father Gerald Herbert, built a new chapel to replace the 1744 one, and this building was used as a place of worship until 1922. It was here that John Kenyon attended the sacraments as a boy, and possibly where the seeds of his vocation were sown. Also in the parish is Killeely graveyard. It is situated on the road to Parteen, across from St Lelia’s church, and is now surrounded by a housing estate. It is here that the Kenyon parents are said to be interred. The graveyard is the only remaining link with the parish of the same name, which once extended from outside the city walls to the hills of Cratloe. The graveyard began to fall into disuse after 1884.
Mrs Kenyon was well known for her charity and kindness to the poor. Being comfortably well off, she would send out her children to less fortunate homes, with ‘soup and other necessities’. She believed that those who refused to beg were often worse off than those who begged for aid (17). That kindness transferred to her son John, who throughout his life was known for his generosity towards the poor. No doubt, as the eldest child (he was nine years old when his brother Patrick was born), he was hugely influenced by her actions. His relentless work on behalf of his parishioners during the years of the Great Famine stands as testament to his concerns. Not only did he seek out public works schemes for his parish, but he also personally provided much needed employment in the locality. Surviving records show that he was a swift and generous subscriber to collections, but when it came to collecting his own dues from his parishioners, one of them remarked: ‘Ah sure it was easy to pay Father Kenyon’ (18). Once during a collection he called the name of a certain John Lynch.’ John stepped forward, pulled out his purse and began to undo the long string which surrounded it. Eventually, he produced the sixpence, which was the general amount paid. Kenyon remarked: ‘Now John Lynch, you are a little bit behind time. If you were enlisted in the company of the United Irishmen and your commanding officer called on you to fire, it would not do for you to say, “I’m going to load sir” ((19). When the local relief committees were established in April 1846 he gave a personal donation of £17, and also purchased one ton of oatmeal for his parishioners at a cost of £10.
His kindness was also evident in the fervent love which he held for his mother. It would appear that she too held an extra special affection for him. As a boy John liked to get his own way, and his strong will allowed him to bring others around to his belief. While his stubbornness worried his father, his mother just laughed and allowed John to have his way (20). Perhaps she erred, as throughout his life that stubbornness plagued his vision in many instances. Happily, he maintained the bond of love with her, and it was openly demonstrated during the Limerick election in 1847. On that occasion, in protest at John O’Connell (son of Daniel O’Connell) standing for election in the city, Kenyon proposed Richard O’Gorman (a Young Ireland colleague) to stand in opposition. His action in proposing a nomination against such a popular family caused serious dissension among the city Repealers. Violence occurred on a number of occasions, resulting in an incident in which Mrs Kenyon’s house was besieged. Kenyon addressed the crowd assembled for the convention and pleaded with them: ‘I care not what you do to myself, but I have a mother whom I love, and unprotected sisters, whom I beg of you not to molest. Wreak all your vengeance on me, but do not, I implore you, invade the sanctuary of my dear mother and her unprotected daughters. This is all I have to say to you’ (21). At the time Mrs Kenyon lived with her two youngest daughters, Matilda (14) and Monica (12). Her husband, Patrick, had died three months previously, on 20 April 1847 (22). Her second son, Patrick, was ordained to the priesthood three weeks prior to the attack on her home (23).
The death of his father in April 1847 initiated a period of very irrational behaviour on John’s part. Just weeks after the funeral he wrote a letter to the Nation newspaper ridiculing the career of Daniel O’Connell, who had recently died, but was not yet buried. He classed his death as a cause of celebration rather than a great loss. Kenyon’s actions provoked condemnation from all sides — even from his own colleagues in the Young Ireland movement. He was unrepentant and followed up his actions by having John O’Connell opposed in the Limerick election a few weeks later. At the same time the priest was being prosecuted for building a wall around his property in Templederry, which allegedly encroached on the public road. He refused to accept any advice, and publicly condemned those who opposed him. When the wall was demolished by order of the court, he immediately had it rebuilt. While several of his actions throughout his life seemed irrational, those during the period after his father’s death appear outstandingly so. On another occasion when two close friends died in a boating accident, he locked himself in his room for two weeks as a means of dealing with his grief. Another story relates the kindness and compassion with which he treated the old and dying. A friend, who accompanied him on a sick call, was amazed at his obvious emotion as he anointed the dying man. His sense of feeling towards his parishioners — love and compassion — were undoubtedly qualities inherited from his mother.
Throughout John Kenyon’s years in Templederry his mother’s portrait took pride of place above his mantle. She died on 4 March 1865, aged seventy-six years. The cause of death was ‘disease of heart and dropsy.’ She had been ill for about a year. Her civil death record described her as a shopkeeper, implying that she maintained the shop which she had inherited from her husband eighteen years previously. On her death she willed her two houses in Limerick to John, highlighting their close relationship. One of the houses was sold by the authorities when he refused to pay the due taxation. On his own death he willed the other house to the Christian Brothers, who collected rent from the property until it was demolished in 1937 to make way for O’Dwyer’s Villas housing estate.
John Buchanan, who lived in a fine five bay, three storey house of cut stone close to Thomond Bridge was the first to organise a regular coach service from Limerick to Dublin in the late eighteenth century. This was the first service of its kind offered anywhere in Ireland. The journey from Limerick to Dublin took four days. Luckily for the young clerical student from number 5, by the 1820s the journey time had been reduced to one day – daybreak to midnight. Kenyon entered Maynooth seminary on 25 August 1829, the year of Catholic Emancipation. His mother’s feelings of pride circumvented with heartbreak can only be imagined as he mounted the coach at Thomond Bridge. Prospective clerical students were obliged to undertake a stiff competitive examination in order to enter the prestigious Maynooth seminary. Patrick, John’s brother was also successful in achieving entry to Maynooth seven years later.
Mrs Kenyon saw her three daughters follow their brothers by entering the religious life. It was surely testament to the Kenyon parents’ charitable and loving nature that they reared five children who devoted their lives to the service of the Church. The oldest sister, Alice, took the name Sister Veronica when she joined the Sisters of Mercy in Killarney, Co. Kerry. She worked there for a number of years before volunteering to work on the Australian mission. Matilda joined the Presentation order at Sexton Street, Limerick. She died early in her religious life. The youngest girl, Monica, who also joined the Presentation order in Sexton Street, took the name Sister Mary Ignatius. She died on 25 April 1897 (24). Both sisters are buried in the convent burial grounds. Patrick, who was ordained in 1847, spent a few years in Limerick diocese, ministering in the city, before he emigrated to Australia, where he spent the remainder of his life. The death of Louis on 7 November 1897 brought to an end the lives of the family of Patrick and Mary Kenyon, number 5, Old Thomondgate, Limerick.
THE REBELLIOUS CURATE
Having entered Maynooth in 1829, John Kenyon studied logic and the classics. He was ordained on Pentecost Saturday, 13 June 1835, by Archbishop Daniel Murray of Dublin. Thirty-three priests and forty deacons were ordained on that day. During his time at Maynooth, the predominant issues of national agitation were Catholic Emancipation and the payment of tithes (1). Refusal to pay tithes became general, and the resistance was organised throughout the country during the 1830s. At that time, following Emancipation, Catholics were building churches for their own communities, resulting in mounting anger at having to support Protestant ministers, while needing the finance in their own parishes. In 1838 the British government agreed to substitute the tithes with a fixed rent charge. Many of the clergy did not want to be seen to support their parishioners in their lawbreaking, while some ‘of the second generation of Maynooth clergy turned to the people from whom they had sprung in sympathetic disapproval of the government’ (2).
Kenyon’s first appointment was to Doora, Co. Clare, where his parish priest was Father James Malone. The parish chapel was a small thatched building, badly in need of replacement. Situated in the barony of Bunratty, the parish was just a few miles from his home in Thomondgate. Within a few months he was transferred to Ennis where he remained for three years. There he ministered with Very Rev Dean O’Shaughnessy and Fathers James Gleeson and John McMahon (3).
In 1837, at the age of twenty-five, he published a scholarly pamphlet, entitled A discourse on the use and history of Christian Churches. It was an impressive work, extending to 7,000 words, which was written at the time of the construction of a new church in Ennis. The building project, initiated by Dean O’Shaughnessy in 1828, was novel on two fronts. Firstly, O’Shaughnessy wanted a church that would one day serve as a cathedral for the diocese, and secondly, he launched an innovative design competition for interested architects (4). To fund the development, which was under way when Kenyon arrived in Ennis, a quarterly cess was placed on each household. There was also a ‘halfpenny collection’ at the chapel door each Sunday, which was supervised by the curates (5). The pamphlet was ‘published for the advancement of the Grand Roman Catholic Cathedral now in the process of erection at Ennis.’ Credit was attributed to ‘Rev John Kenyon of that town.
Kenyon introduced his subject by quoting Psalm xxv.8: ‘I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of thy house, and the place where thy glory dwelleth.’ Immediately emphasising the need for a building within which the Lord should be worshipped, he condemned those who, declaring that God is everywhere, believed that it was not necessary to visit a church to worship. He stated that man can only worship through symbols, and therefore it was imperative to be in the appropriate surroundings when doing so. Agreeing that it was true that God was a spirit and that man was made in his likeness, he pointed out that, because man is ‘enveloped in a veil of flesh’, he cannot communicate with God without the use of symbols: ‘Man in his present condition call worship God only through sensible symbols of some kind or other’ (6).
Stating that, ‘a nation without a sanctuary is unknown to history and to fable, to tradition and experience,’ he presented an informed account of worship from the time of the catacombs right up to the glorious cathedrals of his own time. He summed up the section in the following words: ‘We have seen, beloved Christians, how the Catholic religion is essentially a creative power, to edify, not to destroy, and how it has accordingly covered the world with its monuments. We have seen that these monuments harmonise with reason and experience — with man’s nature and with man’s history; and how all their accessories of size, style and splendour, accord with the genius of Christianity and civilisation, with the tenor of divine inspiration and the tendency of the human heart’ (7).
How had civilisations funded such structures? He explained in the simplest of terms: ‘Those who had wealth gave gold, the owners of quarries, marble; of woods, timber; the labourer gave his time; the artist his skill; and everyone hoped to receive a blessing from heaven if they had a part in the holy work.’ He believed that the Christians of the 1830s were, unfortunately, going astray. He pointed out that many were mere ‘rotten branches’ clinging to the trunk of religion. Evil and greed had taken over and ‘we are not fulfilling the ends of our creation.’ The new philosophy of eating and drinking he deemed to be ‘brutalising our souls, unknown to us and in spite of us.’ Urging the people to cherish their religion, and support the church building, he remarked: ‘We have been served the gem; shall we not encase its beauty from dust and dimness, decay and danger? (8)
The pamphlet concluded with a piece of prose written by the then popular French poet, Lamartine, ending with, ‘Henceforth my love shall rest on the beauty of thy house, and repose in the place where thy glory dwelleth.’ While the document was likely to be warmly received by his clerical colleagues in Ennis, other issues, of both a religious and political nature, which he became involved in while there, were extremely controversial, and resulted in his removal from the parish.
In 1838, in an effort to deal with the rise in destitution, Ireland was divided into 130 poor law unions based around market towns. Each union was governed by a Board of Guardians, elected by the ratepayers. The union established and operated a workhouse, an infirmary and sometimes a fever hospital. In April 1839 Kenyon was reported to have encouraged his Ennis congregation not to vote for any Protestant candidate for election as a guardian. The conservative Clare Journal immediately reported on the matter, stating that Kenyon, and a colleague, had said that ‘they will as soon cut off their right arm, as appoint a Protestant as a Guardian under the Poor Law Act.’
The following edition of the paper contained a response from Kenyon and an editorial devoted to the case. The tone of the editorial was hostile, and while acknowledging his letter of explanation, it judged it to be deficient. The concluding paragraph, showing contempt for Kenyon’s rather conceited explanation, questioned why anyone should be surprised that bigotry was so prevalent: ‘When sectarian jealousy, if not hostility, is inculcated, and the love of our neighbour is not mutually advocated with the adoration of our Almighty Parent, we can only wonder why bigotry is not more prevalent than it is’ (9).
Kenyon, in responding to a request for ‘a publication of the instructions then and there delivered,’ obliged by including details of his entire sermon, which was relevant, as there was a clear progression through to the topic of the Board of Guardians. Having read the Gospel, which dealt with the good shepherd, he spoke of the goodness of God, and how, by laying down his life for his flock, he became the model shepherd. He went on to proclaim the superiority of the Catholic Church: ‘I showed how exactly and exclusively the pastors of the Roman Catholic Church have been formed on that model, braving death in all times and places, from persecution, from contagion, and from the protracted martyrdom of their missions, when the sacrifices might be needful to the salvation of the flock. So much so, I added that without entering into any speculative controversy, the true church of Christ may be recognised at once in this heroic devotion of the body of its pastors’ (10).
Moving from his somewhat embellished vision of the clerical role, he proceeded to church leadership, and then, civilian hierarchy. He explained that Christians aspiring to become leaders in their community should ‘be careful to purify their intentions, because if they sought it [leadership] through any avaricious or otherwise selfish motive they sinned.’ He stated that all Christians who were entitled to confer power on others, by voting or otherwise, ‘were bound in a correlative obligation, to exercise their exalted privilege not through views of private friendship or private interest, but solely on the ground of public advantage.’ He went on to condemn the manner in which magistrates, judges and officials in the Irish public service were appointed. This led him to the forthcoming election of Poor Law guardians. He told his congregation that ‘he would not elect as a guardian of the Irish poor, who because they are Irish and poor and Catholic, any person known to be tainted with sectarian bigotry’ (11). In conclusion, he denied making any statements repugnant to Protestants, and accepted that he knew some ‘liberal Protestants,’ while there were ‘bigots’ in every denomination.
In June 1839 he cited an incident from his altar whereby a woman was, he believed, encouraged to baptise her child as a Protestant by an individual in authority at the Ennis hospital. The issue was taken up by the local papers. One report stated that Kenyon had refused to baptise the child without a financial contribution, whereas no such ‘fee’ was payable in the Protestant church (12). The hospital committee convened a meeting to discuss the issue. A letter was sent to Kenyon informing him of the development and requesting him to attend. He replied that he had merely read a letter from the altar in which it was stated that ‘Mr Tom Mahon wished her to have her child baptised in the Protestant Church’ (13). However, he declined the invitation to attend, citing another engagement and disbelief that his attendance would be useful. An immediate response from Mr J.B. Knox, secretary, emphasised the importance of his attendance, and offered to convene the meeting on a suitable day. Kenyon’s response demonstrated his fast developing skills at culpability transfer:
Sir, I am surprised at your letter of this day on two accounts. First, because it now appears that the meeting cannot so well go off without my presence, whereas it appeared from your communication that my being invited was a matter of mere prudence with the committee. Secondly, because you misunderstand me, in the matter that I scarcely left open to mistake.
He stated that he had clearly explained that he would not be in Ennis on the prescribed day, and that due to what he believed to be the insincerity of the invitation, he resolved ‘not to attend a meeting at which I could be no use that my letter of this morning will not supply.’
The situation prompted the writing of a rather long letter by Kenyon to the editor of the Clare Journal, who happened to be the same Mr Knox who was secretary of the hospital. The editor prefaced the letter with a note stating that he felt obliged to omit portion of the script due to its incisory language. He cited the term ‘scurvy Protestant’ and suggested that he was not sure if it referred to him personally, or to all members of his church. Kenyon’s letter was formulated on logical thinking, whereby he questioned the meaning of the word ‘false’ in the term ‘totally false’, and the committee’s apparent confusion between ‘believing’ and ‘not disbelieving.’ He commented on the grammar of the statement released after the meeting, remarking that he would like to know, ‘by what classic authority so polite a body have allowed capital letters to be dispersed at random through the wording of their resolution, at the expense of Sunday.’ He further remarked, with regard to the standard of the composition: ‘English breaks down in this affair.’
With an apparent comprehensive knowledge of the discussions at the meeting, he quoted one gentleman who allegedly said of him, ‘I wouldn’t believe one word out of his mouth.’ Justifying his non-attendance he warned, ‘few might have had the courage or the impudence to say in my presence a tithe of what was said behind my back.’ He concluded his letter by referring to the meeting as a ‘pitiful, dastardly, disgusting exhibition as ever was (not) masked by malignity, under a pretence of charity.’ He further added that while he was not prone to offend or trouble any person, ‘it would take doughtier foes to fright me.’ In conclusion (and apparently the final words on the whole issue), he stated that he had resolved to adopt into his conduct the advice of Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ‘Beware of entrance into a quarrel: but being in, bear it that the opposer be aware of thee’ (14).
In September of that year a letter to the Clare Journal suggested that a collection for the completion of the new church was being taken up at a Mass celebrated by Kenyon in Ennis. There were ‘about twenty wretched looking men and women’ outside the church unable to pay the collection. They were refused admission and beaten away by a fellow priest. The writer was more critical of Kenyon than of his colleague, remarking that ‘he ought to perceive that his present course is not the one most calculated to earn for him the respect and reverence which I should wish to see a clergyman obtain’ (15).
During his three years in Ennis, Kenyon established himself as a person of strong views, always willing to speak his mind. His argumentative nature was noted by his mother, when as a young child he held strong opinions. Throughout his life he never veiled his confidence in his own judgement and once suggested that he would always put his own personal opinion ahead of that of his best friends. When objecting to the manner in which his colleagues treated O’Connell’s death, he spoke of his ‘instinctive judgement’ which compelled him to speak his true thoughts. He was not afraid to distance himself from the actions of Young Ireland on the occasion, and actually isolated himself by his stance.
Kenyon had not been on good terms with his bishop, Rev Patrick Kennedy, since shortly after his ordination in 1836. At that early stage of his career he began to display his oratorical skills. A colleague at the time remarked that his style of conversation was Godlike: ‘That most rare gift, the power to please by the mere sound of voice, was his’ (16). However, as became a pattern throughout his life, it was his eloquence that led him into conflict. That conflict came to a head in 1839 when he was transferred from Ennis. The Clare Journal, which reported on the event, was unsympathetic towards him. Referring to a sermon he had given on 29 September 1839, it classed him as ‘the half lunatic,’ and a ‘blockhead, a demented and vulgar creature.’ In that instance he was accused of denouncing a local family from the altar as ‘perverts.’ The editor expressed surprise that such language would be used by ‘a Minister of the Gospel, in the presence of that God which he believes to be actually present.’ He wondered how a priest could ‘reconcile his preaching and his practice with the lessons taught by his Divine Master’ (17) Severe criticism was expressed of him for using the office of the priesthood to put forward ‘his piebald balderdash.’ The bishop, Dr Kennedy, was castigated for allowing him to go on for so long before taking decisive action. The Journal questioned how he allowed Kenyon to continue ‘in defiance of a strict episcopal injunction he had indulged in personal abuse and slander on the altar’ (18).
In November 1839 Kenyon was transferred from Ennis to Silvermines, Co. Tipperary. Feelings were mixed as he left, with many ‘glad to learn that this reverend and worthy gentleman has been removed by his bishop to the most remote part of this diocese’ (19). The Clare Journal ironically summed him up as follows: ‘Mr Kenyon was indeed an extraordinary homo; in fact he was more, he was an extraordinary homunculus, and as such he was esteemed by every man of discrimination. He was a man of the greatest inventive powers combined with very uncommon judgement; his sympathies with his fellow men were as unbounded as his discretion’ (20).
The sarcasm continued in the explanation for his removal. It was suggested that he had been getting on so well with his parish priest that the bishop decided to share him with the parish priest of Silvermines. Secondly, due to the fact that he had interacted so well with his parishioners in Ennis, it was thought possible that he may help to ‘reclaim the landlords and gentry of Tipperary from their barbarism.’ Thirdly, the pretence went on, ‘he was so obedient to the authority of Dr Kennedy himself that he determined to mark his approbation of Mr Kenyon’s discreet submission to the episcopal disciplines.’ Fourthly, his popularity was such that he was distracted by invitations – a suggestion that he was often absent from his duties.
Despite the Clare Journal’s delight at Kenyon’s removal, an effort was made to keep him in Ennis. Shortly before his departure a meeting was held in Newmarket-on- Fergus with Dr Kennedy. The parish priest, Dean O’Shaughnessy, denied involvement in the removal, but refused to sign a petition to hold him in Ennis. One of those who spoke in Kenyon’s favour was Charles O’Connell, who a few years later would take opposing sides to him on the issue of physical force. O’Connell had exceptional praise for his future foe on that occasion. He said that it made him weep to think his friend was being moved from the locality in such circumstances, commenting rather dramatically that he could ‘cry for hours when he heard of his bereavement’ (21). O’Connell’s statement was ironic, as he had been previously censured from the altar by Kenyon for his suggestions regarding the types of people suitable for the positions as guardians.
THE YOUNG KENYON
CHAPTER TWO THE REBELLIOUS CURATE