|Bicentenary of birth of outspoken cleric Fr John Kenyon
May 1st, 2012 marked the bicentenary of the birth of Fr John Kenyon who was one of the most controversial and outspoken Catholic priests of nineteenth century Ireland.
The name of the controversial cleric Fr John Kenyon – who was twice suspended by his bishop - lives on in North Tipperary as a street was named after him in Nenagh while the GAA club in Templederry commemorates him too.
Born two hundred years ago in Thomondgate, Limerick, his father ran a successful stonecutting business, a public house and a grocery shop while his mother was well known for her charity work. Her kindness transferred to son, John who was renowned for his generosity towards the poor throughout his life.
John, then aged 23, entered Maynooth seminary in 1829, the year of Catholic Emancipation and following his ordination he was sent to Ennis where he took an active involvement in politics. During his three years there he was always willing to speak his mind and his denunciations from the altar led to Bishop Kennedy transferring him to the Silvermines.
Fr John spent two years in Silvermines, where he initiated a ‘Buy Irish’ campaign and then moved to Ballinaclough where he spent one year. He also became deeply involved in Fr Matthew’s Temperance Movement and urged large gatherings in Nenagh and Dunkerrin to take the pledge.
Following his move to Templederry in 1842, he took a greater interest in national matters.
Fr Kenyon came to prominence as a polemicist for the Young Ireland movement and was a life-time friend and confidant of several of its leaders, particularly John Mitchel.
A great speaker, he became involved with the Repeal party even though he was initially a strong supporter of Daniel O’Connell but then became impatient with the apparent lack of progress on the Repeal issue.
He blamed the severity of the Great Famine on the British and went so far as to use his Sunday sermon to advise his congregation to teach their children to hate everything British. Even in these terrible times, his charitable side shone through and as a member of the Dolla & Killeneave and the Templederry & Latteragh relief committees he worked tirelessly for his people.
His outspoken negative views on O’Connell led him into conflict with his parish priest, Fr Keary, who was a strong supporter of The Liberator. From his arrival in Templederry, Fr Kenyon had refused to accept Fr Keary as his superior and when the differences became public the Bishop of Killaloe suspended Fr Kenyon from his clerical duties while he investigated. The surprising result saw Fr Keary leave for a mission in England, while Kenyon became the new parish priest.
When O’Connell died in May 1847 Fr Kenyon wrote to The Nation criticising expressions of sympathy offered by members of Young Ireland. He questioned how they could have condemned him weeks previously, and yet eulogise him when he died.
Despite the embarrassment caused by his outspoken views of O’Connell, Kenyon was of immense importance to the Young Ireland movement as its leadership consisted of Protestants and Presbyterians, as well as Catholics. He was seen in party circles as the person to win the support of the Catholic population. When John Mitchel was transported in 1848 he took his place as the extremist of the party. He visited Charles Gavan Duffy, along with Terence Bellew MacManus, and suggested the reorganisation of the Irish Confederation into a secret society, capable of acting as a quasi government in the event of a rising. The suggestion was acted upon and the Confederation was disbanded. A measure of the huge support that Kenyon was enjoying was illustrated when he and Meagher were elected to the new organisation with the maximum thirty-one votes, while O’Brien, Duffy and Dillon got thirty. Kenyon was now at his political zenith, and quickly replacing Mitchel – the real difference was that he has the backing of the entire organization and not just a few revolutionaries.
However Kenyon’s involvement in the preparation for war caused serious concerns for his religious superiors. In April 1848, he encouraged a crowd of ten thousand people at Templederry to arm themselves, his bishop immediately suspended him from clerical duties and he was presented with an ultimatum to either give up politics or be expelled from the priesthood. A compromise was arrived at whereby he agreed that he would not involve himself in the rising unless he considered that there was a reasonable chance of success.
Unfortunately he did not explain this constraint to his colleagues – and this caused much misunderstanding and anger at a later assembly of the Confederates in Ballingarry, Co Tipperary.
On Thursday July 27th as the Confederates gathered at Ballingarry, William Smith O’Brien dispatched Thomas Francis Meagher, John Blake Dillon, and Maurice Leyne to Templederry, to request Father Kenyon to lead out his men. It was intended that Kenyon’s leadership would extend the rising to North Tipperary, and into Limerick. Kenyon surprisingly refused, stating that he was not prepared to become involved in ‘a bootless struggle.’ Meagher later referred to Ballingarry as ‘not a rising, but a blunder’ - a statement which supported Kenyon’s deduction.
Fr Kenyon curtailed his political involvement after the fiasco at Ballingarry. He refused to join the Tenant League, restricting his involvement to lengthy newspaper debates with Fr Croke (later Archbishop of Cashel). The execution of the Cormack brothers of Loughmore in 1858 led to the calling of a public meeting in their support and Kenyon gave one of his finest speeches. While denying membership of the Fenians, he publically involved himself with an associate group. Again this landed him in difficulties with church authorities and a letter detailing his actions was submitted to Rome by Archbishop Cullen of Dublin.
When Terence Bellew MacManus died in 1861, the Fenians repatriated the body from America in an effort to gain publicity. James Stephens asked Kenyon to give the oration, but replaced him when he saw the timidity of his planned speech. At the meeting Kenyon caused uproar and threatened to remove the body but relented and instead travelled with the immediate MacManus family at the head of the funeral cortege.
Kenyon’s two closest friends were John Mitchel and John Martin and they were affectionately known as ‘The Three Johns’. They were an unlikely group. John Mitchel was the son of a Unitarian minister who had been a United Irishman in the 1790s. John Martin, a Presbyterian, from Co Down, had a family background of opposition to the 1798 rebellion. John Kenyon expounded the merits of physical force, as opposed to the moral force ideal espoused by Daniel O’Connell. The Young Ireland movement brought the three together in a friendship that lasted a lifetime.
John Kenyon believed that the struggle for freedom was an issue for Catholic, Protestant and Presbyterian alike. He was remarkably free of religious intolerance and enjoyed the friendship of the Presbyterians John Mitchel and John Martin. In an era when Irish Catholicism was becoming more insular and polarised under Cardinal Cullen, his comment that “the soul of a Presbyterian Irishman is as valuable in the sight of Christ as the soul of any Catholic priest or bishop” sounds both radical and brave.
Kenyon was known as ‘the slave tolerating priest from Tipperary,’ due to his constant refusal to condemn slavery. His views initially came to light when the Irish Confederation was discussing the issue of donations from America. Kenyon maintained that regardless of their origin, all donations should be accepted.
John Kenyon died at Chapel House, in his adopted parish of Templederry, on March 21st 1869. He was 56-years-old and had been in poor health for a few years.
He controversially willed all his belongings to the Christian Brothers in Ennistymon, including his parochial house in Templederry and adjoining five acres. The brothers graciously returned the property to the church while a long lost oil portrait of him painted in 1846, which hung for many years over the mantelpiece in the Parochial House in Templederry up to his death, was only recently recovered after being found in a shed at the back of the Ennistymon monastery by Tim Boland, author of a recent biography on Fr Kenyon.
Last year at the launch of the biography the author presented the long lost portrait to the current Parish Priest Willie Teehan. And once again Fr Kenyon will preside from over the mantelpiece in the Parochial House in the village!
Perhaps Charles Gavan Duffy presented the definite appraisal of Father John Kenyon when he remarked – “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.”
A comprehensive biography by Tim Boland entitled Father John Kenyon The Rebel Priest was published last year.