Uncovering my great-grandfather John Kenny's 1916 story took 20 years, seven trips to Ireland, and shaking family skeletons out of the closet.Courtesy of Frances Christ

It all started with a random comment my mother made, 23 years ago. She told me she had seen the name John Kenny – her grandfather’s name – mentioned in Peter De Rosa’s book "Rebels," about the 1916 Easter Uprising. A common enough name, except that the John Kenny in the book had run a secret mission that sounded suspiciously like the one she had heard—in whispers only—her grandfather had run.

I decided to look into it. I knew absolutely nothing about Irish history, and even less about my grandparents. Nor did I know that I was starting on a hobby—no, an obsession—that would last over twenty years and seven trips to Ireland, and shake a few family skeletons out of the closet.

The first surprise came when I got hold of my great-grandfather’s death certificate. My mother was stunned to see that he had not died before she was born, as she had always assumed, but was living in Manhattan, not far from their home in Brooklyn. My mother’s oldest sisters, who had been privy to “grown up” talk that my mother, one of the youngest, was not allowed to hear, told us that their father used to visit his father, secretly, every Friday.

The next surprise came as I was searching through microfilm at the New York Public Library, hoping to find an obituary for my great-grandfather. As I fast-forwarded through the 1924 reel (the year he died) of microfilm of The Gaelic American, a popular Irish American newspaper, I stopped randomly to check the date. Staring out at me from the center of the frame was the iconic portrait of Tom Clarke. I knew from De Rosa’s book that Kenny had brought messages to Clarke, and I pictured the scene: Clarke answering a knock on the door and opening it a crack, while Kenny, awed to be so close to the man himself, whispered the message before Clarke nodded and shut the door.

Tom Clarke

Tom Clarke

Apparently, that was not how it happened. I read the article accompanying the picture. It said that John Kenny, having had a long and close association with Clarke during his lifetime, had given the speech at a memorial service for Clarke. At the end of the article, the editor added that Kenny’s version of two secret missions he ran in 1914 had been printed earlier that year. I quickly rewound the microfilm until I found it: the story of two secret missions – told in a three-part series, in Kenny’s own words.

I followed up on a suggestion to call the American Irish Historical Society to see if they had anything on file for John Kenny. Yes, they said, they did, and they would have it ready for me to look at when I came in. Thinking they were most likely papers belonging to a different John Kenny, I half-heartedly opened the file folder and was stunned to see the entire paper trail of the missions: letters, cancelled checks, a receipt on Irish Volunteers letterhead signed by Eoin MacNeill, notes, even the telegram informing Devoy, in code, that he had gotten safely past the British authorities.

Read more 1916 Easter Rising stories here

Over the next several months I spoke with family members. Despite the prohibition on speaking of Kenny, there were quite a few family legends regarding him. Apparently there was a double reason for the code of silence: his top secret missions were not looked upon favorably by either the United States or the British governments; and, after an “Irish divorce” (they separated by mutual consent) he had a short-lived affair with someone much younger—which did not in itself embarrass his wife—except that, unforgivably, the other woman was from their parish, and known in their social circle.

While his wife, Annie, seems to have had the most sway over the children, Kenny seems to have had their hearts. My grandfather (Kenny’s son Christopher) never forgot the day his father took him to the grand opening celebrations for the Brooklyn Bridge. Together they joined the hundreds of pedestrians who walked across the bridge just after the ribbon was cut. When the family moved from New York City to Ireland, he bought the children their own pony and cart to use for trips into town, understanding how difficult it might be for them to adjust from city-living to country-living.

Annie Kenny

Annie Kenny

He had strong ties to his children. When the family returned to Ireland, he insisted that the body of their infant son, Joseph, be disinterred and reburied in the family plot in Ireland. Years later when they transplanted back to New York, he desperately wanted to bring Joseph’s remains with them, but his wife adamantly refused. Probably unusual for the time, he sent all his daughters to college – they attended the College of St. Elizabeth, one of the first Catholic colleges in the United States to award degrees to women.

After years of research, on and off, and a tremendous amount of help from many sources both here in New York and in Ireland, I was able to put together at least some of his life story.

Kenny hits New York

Kenny was born in 1847 near Kilcock, County Kildare, to a family of wealthy farmers. Anxious to distance him from the Irish Republican Brotherhood (I.R.B.), his parents sent him to school in Australia. According to his obituary, he made a fortune in gold mining there but his health failed and he returned to Ireland. He entered Canada in 1869, and made his way to New York. There, he talked himself into a job with Mills & Gibb, New York’s largest dry goods importer, and found his way to the secretive Clan na Gael, the sister organization of the I.R.B. Over the next few years, a distinguished roster of Fenians joined the same New York chapter of the Clan na Gael, including John Devoy, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa and Tom Clarke.

Kenny played a prominent role in the audacious “Catalpa Rescue” of six Fenians from a notoriously brutal penal colony in Fremantle, West Australia, which catapulted the Clan na Gael to world-wide acclaim. A newspaper clipping among Devoy’s personal papers states that a John Kenny, along with Thomas Desmond and Thomas Brennan, were “responsible for the arrangements to get the imprisoned Fenians on board the [ship] Catalpa.”

Kenny moved up quickly at Mills & Gibb. He married a fellow Irish immigrant, Annie Morrissey, in 1873, and they moved to a middle class neighborhood on the west side of Manhattan, closer to the neighborhoods of Edith Wharton and Henry James than to the Five Points neighborhood on the Lower East Side.

By 1880, Kenny was the president of the New York chapter of the Clan na Gael. When a young Tom Clarke arrived in America and joined the organization, he was sworn in by Kenny. Clarke quickly gained the members’ confidence and was made secretary. When Clarke approached Kenny to volunteer for a “special mission,” Kenny, not knowing what the mission was, passed Clarke’s name on, recommending him as “a sensible, thoughtful young fellow.” It was only after Clarke had been arrested in London for attempting to blow up London Bridge that Kenny realized what the “special mission” was.

Young Tom Clarke

Young Tom Clarke

During Kenny’s term as president, the Clan na Gael supported the Irish Land League and Home Rule, sponsoring Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell on lecture and fund-raising tours across the United States. Irish American organizations, including the National Land League, of which Kenny was secretary, collected over $500,000 to send to Parnell.

The Clan also played an interesting role in maritime history by financing John Holland, a former Christian Brother and self-taught engineer, as he developed the submarine. Holland had initially approached the U.S. Navy with his plans but had been turned down. His brothers, all Fenians, suggested he bring his plans to the Clan na Gael, who might see its potential to undermine the British Navy. Despite the need for secrecy, the trial runs of the boat unavoidably attracted a large audience, with a reporter for the New York Sun aptly dubbing the boat the “Fenian Ram.”

John Holland

John Holland

The project was going smoothly until a power play within the Clan by the “action men” led by O’Donovan Rossa, who favored bombing runs into Britain, resulted in an audit that cut off the financing. Holland broke off with the Clan na Gael, which led the Clan to “kidnap” the Fenian Ram and tow it to the boatyard of James Reynolds, the former owner of the Catalpa. Holland refused to tell the Clan how to use the boat, so it was left to rust. Holland continued to work on the design, and in 1900, the U.S. Navy bought his boat, paying him only half the cost of designing it, and then quickly bought seven more. Several other countries including, ironically, Great Britain, also bought submarines. In 1916, the Fenian Ram was exhibited in Madison Square Garden to raise funds for victims of the Easter Rising. It’s now on exhibit at the Paterson Museum in Paterson, New Jersey.

Read more 1916 Easter Rising stories here

The Fenian Ram

The Fenian Ram

In a vicious power struggle during the early 1880’s, the Clan was taken over at the national level by the “action men” who, annoyed by the I.R.B.’s demands that they cease the bombing runs, cut the ties with the I.R.B. Kenny’s Clan chapter protested the new policy and was expelled from the Clan, along with other chapters who had likewise protested. This left the “action men” in control of the Clan’s considerable funds, which Devoy worried would be used to pressure Parnell into militancy. While Devoy organized the expelled chapters, Kenny resigned from his high-level job at Mills & Gibb and moved his family to Ireland, buying a 100 acre horse farm, The Mount, in Kilcock, County Kildare.

Traveling man

According to family lore, he was “laundering funds” coming in from America, and running high-level secret meetings at the house. His daughter Margaret, thrilled to play a part, would be sent to deliver a cake to a neighbor as a signal that a meeting would take place that night. Annie was not as enthusiastic about the family’s role. It disturbed her that the children had to be warned never to tell anyone anything they had seen or heard at The Mount. She was mortified when their 4 year old daughter, in response to a neighbor sweetly asking her, “And how old are you?” replied, “I really don’t think that’s any of your business.”

By 1890, the “action men” had lost their grip on the Clan and Parnell’s political life was in ruins. Kenny moved his family back to New York, much to the disappointment of the children. Fortunately, his former employer welcomed him back at a high salary, and the family settled into a very comfortable lifestyle, with boarding schools for the children and summers at a resort in New England for well-heeled Irish Americans. But Annie was not happy with the effects that Kenny’s Clan activities had on the family. In 1896 their 13-year-old daughter, Mary died. Annie and Kenny agreed to separate as soon as the youngest child went to boarding school.

In 1898 Tom Clarke, released from prison, returned to New York and renewed his close association with Devoy, the Clan, and Kenny. Clarke moved back to Dublin in 1907, where he served as the center of a secret revolutionary circle. Kenny traveled to Ireland often during that period, meeting frequently with Clarke and his associates. By 1910, Kenny was living alone in Manhattan while Annie stayed in Brooklyn with the children.

In 1914, Kenny was again president of the New York chapter of the Clan na Gael, as well as the vice president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood Veterans, a founder and president of the Irish National Volunteers Committee (to raise funds to arm the Irish Volunteers) and president of “The Fianna League of America.” Devoy recommended in a letter to Clan leader McGarrity that Kenny be added to the Executive Committee of the Clan-na-Gael. Under Kenny, the Clan invited Padraic Pearse, Bulmer Hobson and others from Tom Clarke’s circle as guest speakers. Kenny was also an early and active supporter of Pearse’s school St. Enda’s.

Secret agent Fenian

At the outbreak of World War I, Kenny ran two dangerous secret missions that helped set the stage for the Uprising.

Within days of the outbreak of war between Britain and Germany, John Devoy and Sir Roger Casement presented a proposal to the German Embassy: the Irish would start a rebellion, putting England at war on two fronts, if Germany would sell them guns and provide military leaders. Hoping to present their proposal directly to the government in Germany, Casement and Devoy decided to send a personal envoy, John Kenny.

Roger Casement and John Devoy

Roger Casement and John Devoy

Kenny sailed for Naples on August 14, carrying only one bag, with a change of clothes, some papers, and credentials from the German Embassy. After a dangerous and nerve-wracking voyage, he was initially denied permission to disembark, a position the authorities reversed the next day when they were overwhelmed with passengers wishing to leave Italy and the looming war. In Rome, he was given a cordial and lengthy interview by the German ambassador. He then traveled by train and boat over the Alps to Berlin, the ground shifting daily beneath his feet as one country after another joined the conflict. He observed with dread the buildup taking place to what would surely be a monumental catastrophe.

In Berlin he met with ex-Chancellor Prince von Buelow, who offered to help him reach the Kaiser, who was near the Front. Although both Kenny and Devoy doubted that a meeting with the Kaiser would be possible, Casement was very anxious for Kenny to meet with him. (Casement also wanted Kenny to meet with the Pope while in Rome). Kenny set off, traveling first by troop train, then on foot, foraging for food and sleeping outdoors as needed (remarkable, considering he was 67 years old), but did not manage to catch up with the Kaiser, who had moved to a secret location. His funds all but depleted and his escape route through Naples now closed by the war, Kenny decided it was time to return home.

Arriving in Rotterdam to find that the ship for New York had just sailed, he headed over to Dublin, where he brought Tom Clarke up to date on the mission. He stayed a week or two, visiting Pearse at his school, St. Enda’s, where they discussed both the political situation and other interests they held in common, and traveling throughout the country to gather information. He left after repeated warnings from the authorities.

Back in New York, Kenny met with Casement, dining at the same restaurant they had on the day of Kenny’s departure. Casement was very enthusiastic, “boyishly so,” as he speculated on the near future, Kenny later wrote. He noted that Casement could not have known that his own trip to Europe a few days later, would end in tragedy.

A few weeks later Kenny was asked to return to Dublin with the funds for the guns, and to gather as much intelligence as possible. He delivered £3,000 (over $350,000 in today’s dollars) to the O’Rahilly at the Irish Volunteers Headquarters, receiving a receipt from Eoin MacNeill. Clarke and MacDiarmada, expecting imminent arrest, gave Kenny the names of a second and third line of command, as well as the names of several people (Kathleen Clarke among them) who held sums of gold, which Kenny was to memorize and relay to Devoy.

Receipt from MacNeill

Receipt from MacNeill

Kenny spent the next few weeks with Clarke, MacDiarmada, Diarmuid Lynch, Bulmer Hobson, Padraic Pearse, The O’Rahilly and others in Clarke’s circle. He met with Clarke and MacDiarmada for the last time in Wynn’s Hotel. That evening, just before Kenny left for the Liverpool boat, the O'Rahilly called on Kenny on a personal matter. That was the last Kenny was to see of the men of Easter week.

After their executions, he wrote:

These men, I am sure, were fully sensible of the fate that awaited them in the event of an unsuccessful rising; yet they went calmly yet earnestly on. Some of them had serious responsibilities which must often have made them pause, warm attachments perhaps, prospects and ambitions which they would have wished to live for or to attain. They were the stuff of which were made the heroes and martyrs whose statues adorn our public squares and whose names are canonized in our churches. Yet they were condemned as little less than criminals by some who now profess that their greatest desire is to emulate them. They were derided as visionaries, yet Ireland is well on the way towards which they would have led.

The last years

After the missions, Kenny took on additional responsibilities in New York, as the Business Manager for Devoy’s paper The Gaelic American, a co-founder and Chairman of the Friends of Irish Freedom, a member of the American Irish Historical Society, and involvement with the Cumann na mBan, as well as a frequently-published writer and poet. In demand as a speaker, he often addressed meetings and banquets along with Devoy, Daniel F. Cohalan, John Carroll, and other prominent Irish Americans. According to one member, Kenny and Devoy were such close associates that speaking to one was as good as speaking to the other.

In late 1924, his health failing, Kenny was alone and trying unsuccessfully to get into a nursing home. He caught pneumonia on Christmas and died on Dec. 27.

The Gaelic American carried the news of his death on the front page, and printed expressions of sympathy from a multitude of Irish American organizations for weeks afterwards.

A special Mass was said in his honor for all the Irish societies, sponsored by the Cummann na mBan, which wrote that Kenny was “one of their most valued friends, and one of the sincerest, noblest, and most intelligent friends of Ireland who was ever ready to assist wholeheartedly and unselfishly...”

The Napper Tandy Club wrote: “Poet, patriot and scholar, a character of sterling excellence actuated by the most laudable motives, for a half century a member of the Napper Tandy Club, he trod the path of wholehearted consecration to his country’s cause, with a constancy of spirit, a modesty worthy of imitation, and a quiet determination to do his part.”

The Irish Republican Brotherhood Veteran’s Association wrote of their former president that he was “a true and tried comrade, a wise counselor, a courteous and cultivated gentleman, and a faithful and untiring worker in the cause, to which he had so unselfishly devoted a long and useful life.”

There was no mention of his children or grandchildren. But he had never forgotten them. When his daughters picked up his personal effects from the hospital they found in the pocket of his suit jacket, the letter sent to him by his son Christopher, then 12 years old, when he had traveled to The Mount a few months ahead of Kenny. The letter ended with a poem:

As I sailed out that summer day,

I gave my last look at New York Bay,

And when I looked in my father’s face,

I saw in it still that beautiful grace

Which cares for us all.

With true expressions of love and gratitude I remain your affectionate son,

Crissy

Kenny is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Queens, N.Y. under a headstone that says simply “Kenny.”

Kenny resurrected

But John Kenny will no longer be forgotten, thanks to Derek Warfield, who has played a major role in seeing that John Kenny is remembered. Plans are underway for a bust or statue of John Kenny to be placed in his hometown of Kilcock, County Kildare, in 2016. Last August Derek introduced me to a sculptor, and showed me two possible sites in Kilcock for a bust or statue. Derek Warfield and the Young Wolfe Tones kicked off a fund-raising campaign in November 2015 with a benefit concert at Monaghan’s in Rockville Centre; The Druids will be doing a benefit concert on March 13 at the Rambling House (info: John Duggan 347 512-2401).

For more information on John Kenny and updates on the memorial, visit the John Kenny Memorial blog or Facebook page.

Read more 1916 Easter Rising stories here

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Frances Christ is the great-granddaughter of John Kenny. She currently lives on Long Island with her family but has dreams of moving to Ireland sometime soon.