John Kenny was born in Kilcock, County Kildare, on April 24 in 1847, or “Black 47,” the worst year of the Irish famine.
The term “The Great Hunger” is more accurate than “The Famine”: although the potato crop had failed across Europe, only in Ireland did a famine occur. The Irish peasant population had grown dependent on the potato, which grew even in poor soil, as their source of food, while the rest of the produce – grain, cattle, and sheep – were exported. When the potato crop failed for several years in a row, over a million people died the slow and painful death from starvation, and another two million were forced to flee to countries that did not want them. Tens of thousands more poured into cities like Dublin, which had neither housing nor jobs for them, creating dangerous and deadly slums.
How did such a catastrophe happen on the doorstep of Britain, the wealthiest country in the world? A blind dedication to laissez-faire economics, regardless of the effects, determined British policy.
Charles Trevelyan, the British government official in charge of famine relief, believed that the famine was the will of God, the British were not to interfere. “The judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated,” he wrote. “The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.”
Others saw it differently. John Mitchel, an Irish rebel transported to Van Diemens Land, wrote, “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.”
Born into a family of wealthy farmers, John fortunately didn’t suffer the severe deprivation of the tenant farmers. But he inherited his grandfather’s passion for freedom, having listened to his grandfather and his friends recount their tales of rebellion.
The country was left reeling from the effects of mass starvation and emigration. But by 1859, a new organization formed, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (I.R.B). Based in Ireland but supported by Irish exiles in America, the I.R.B. sought freedom and independence from Britain, using armed force if necessary.
John was in his teens when John Devoy, five years older and born 15 miles away in Kill, Co, Kildare, became one of the top recruiters for the I.R.B. John was almost certainly a member of the I.R.B., as years later he would serve several terms as the president of the I.R.B. Veterans in New York.
An uprising was planned. But before it could happen, John’s parents sent him to Australia, ostensibly to receive a better university education than he could, as a Catholic, expect to get in Ireland. But their main reason was to put as much distance as possible between him and the I.R.B. Devoy’s recruiting activities were reported to the British and he was arrested before the rebellion. In prison, his path crossed that of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, another prominent I.R.B. member who had also been arrested.
The uprising took place in March, 1867. Thanks to informers and heavy British infiltration of the organization, many of the rebels had been arrested ahead of time in sweeps, and the rebellion, with the I.R.B. greatly outnumbered by the British, was crushed.
In Australia, John made the most of his enforced exile by making a small fortune in mining. But his health failed and he returned to Ireland, now determined to get to America. According to family legend, it took three attempts before he was able to set foot on American soil, landing in Quebec in August 1869. He made his way to New York and found a room in a boarding house in Brooklyn.
Family lore has it that he set out from the lower tip of Manhattan and walked up Broadway, vowing that he would not return to the boarding house that evening until he had a job. At Grand Street and Broadway, he came across a help wanted sign at Mills & Gibb, the largest importer and wholesaler of lace, white goods, and upholstery in New York. John convinced the owner to hire him on a trial basis, day to day. The owner agreed, and within two weeks John had a permanent position.
Soon after arriving in New York, John found his way to the Clan na Gael, the secret organization that was the sister-organization to the I.R.B. in Ireland. Like the I.R.B. the Clan was devoted to achieving Irish independence, using whatever means necessary. The Clan na Gael would be the center of John’s life.
The Fields of Athenry