New book on Fr John Kenyon, the ‘Rebel Priest’

On July 28, 1848 Father John Kenyon wrote the following note in his parish register at Chapel House, Templederry: ‘This evening I have heard of a rebellion in South Tipperary under the leadership of William Smith O’Brien -- may God speed it.’ Hours earlier he had turned down a request from William Smith O’Brien to lead forth his troops and commence the rising in North Tipperary, an act that would hopefully ignite the spirit of the Limerick contingent, under the leadership of Richard O’Gorman. O’Brien considered Kenyon’s involvement to be so strategic that he sent three of his finest men Thomas Francis Meagher, John Blake Dillon and Maurice Leyne to convince the rebel priest to join the rising. Kenyons blunt refusal in the belief that it was ‘a bootless struggle’ was the final straw in the Young Ireland rising of 1848. Meagher later agreed, suggesting that it was not a rebellion, but a blunder.

On July 28, 1848 Father John Kenyon wrote the following note in his parish register at Chapel House, Templederry: ‘This evening I have heard of a rebellion in South Tipperary under the leadership of William Smith O’Brien -- may God speed it.’ Hours earlier he had turned down a request from William Smith O’Brien to lead forth his troops and commence the rising in North Tipperary, an act that would hopefully ignite the spirit of the Limerick contingent, under the leadership of Richard O’Gorman. O’Brien considered Kenyon’s involvement to be so strategic that he sent three of his finest men Thomas Francis Meagher, John Blake Dillon and Maurice Leyne to convince the rebel priest to join the rising. Kenyons blunt refusal in the belief that it was ‘a bootless struggle’ was the final straw in the Young Ireland rising of 1848. Meagher later agreed, suggesting that it was not a rebellion, but a blunder.

Within a short time the leaders were arrested. The state trials were held in Clonmel where O’Brien, McManus, O’Donoghue, and Meagher were sentenced to death. After public outcry, the sentences were commuted to transportation. The London Evening Standard questioned the politics behind the prosecutions, and wondered, ‘why not put Father Kenyon in the dock beside Mr O’Brien, if there is sufficient evidence to convict Father Kenyon as Mr O’Brien.’ This was a reference to a comment made at the trials where O’Brien’s defence lawyer questioned how the jury could ‘convict the Protestant agitator in the dock, while the Catholic priest [Kenyon] walked abroad in the freshness of freedom.

The life of the rebel priest is told a new book by Tim Boland, a retired primary teacher from Ballinaclough, Nenagh. In 2004 he was awarded an M.A. in Local History by the University of Limerick followed in 2009 by a PhD from the same institution.

The dismal failure of the rebellion at Ballingarry, his personal dilemma resulting in his non-involvement, along with the devasting horrors of starvation, sapped the ambition and vitality from the Templederry PP Fr Kenyon. 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 (1866) — 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.

Father John Kenyon, The Rebel Priest presents the first complete account of his meteoric rise in the Young Ireland Movement after the transportation of his close friend John Mitchel. It deals with his serious conflict of interest between church and physical force, culminating in his suspension from clerical duties in the lead up to the rising. Despite his attempts to circumvent his bishop Dr Kennedy, by interceding with Archbishop Slattery of Cashel, he was forced to concede to the requirements of the church that he would not get involved in rebellion unless he saw a realistic chance of victory.

Kenyon’s life was immersed in controversary. As a young priest he was removed from Ennis because from his altar he accused Protestants as being ‘perverts.’ Yet within a few short years his friendship with Davis, Mitchel, Martin, and the other Protestant members of Young Ireland led him to suggest in later life that a northern Presbyterian had as good a chance of entering heaven as a Catholic priest.

After Daniel O’Connell’s death in 1847, Kenyon caused international controversary when, through the Nation, he condemned the Liberator’s political career as achieving nothing. He questioned the benefits of Catholic Emancipation, and totally condemned the Repeal campaign as a cash cow for O’Connell and his family.

As a close friend of Mitchel, Kenyon refused to condemn slavery. His views were not as extreme, however, suggesting that we are all slaves, and that we should solve our own problems before attempting to become involved in the affairs of another state. Nonetheless, he secured for himself the title of ‘slave tolerating clergyman of Tipperary.’

Kenyon was twice suspended from clerical duties by his bishop, Dr Kennedy. He was twice found guilty of breaching the planning laws, and even had a house taken by the revenue authorities after he refused to pay due taxation. Even in death Kenyon stirred controversary when his will was contested in court. An intriguing case followed between Peter Gill, a close personal friend of Kenyon and Dr McEvilly, bishop of Galway...

Charles Gavan Duffy summed up Kenyon most aptly when he wrote: ‘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’.

Two hundred years after the birth of John Kenyon (1812) this work throws new light on the failure of the Young Ireland rebellion, and 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.’

Father John Kenyon, The Rebel Priest, by Tim Boland is available at bookshops and also online.