The John Kenny Story

Part 13

The First Mission

By 1914, Kenny was once again the president of the Napper Tandy Club of the Clan-na-Gael, where he weekly presided over banquets, lectures, fundraisers, and military reviews of the Irish Volunteers, with guests such as Patrick Pearse and Bulmer Hobson. He was also the vice president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood Veterans, president and co-founder of the Irish National Volunteers Committee (to raise funds for the Irish Volunteers), and president of “The Fianna League of America” which he helped establish. He was an early and enthusiastic advocate for Patrick Pearse and his school, St. Enda’s, and was among the first contributors.

Devoy recommended in a letter to Clan leader McGarrity that Kenny be added to the Executive Committee of the Clan-na-Gael.

On August 4, 1914 Britain declared war on Germany. The Clan na Gael me with the top-ranking German diplomats in the United States to present their proposal: if Germany would sell them guns and provide military training, the Irish would stage an uprising, putting Britain at war on two fronts. Although the Germans listened intently and promised to send the proposal on to Germany immediately, Devoy and Sir Roger Casement wanted to present the plan themselves. The transatlantic cable had been cut by Britain shortly after the declaration of war, so they decided to send a personal envoy: John Kenny.

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 coming war. As soon as he was out of maritime jurisdiction, he sent the following letter to Devoy:

On board S.S. Canopic,

10 A.M. Sept. 1st, 1914.

Dear Friend–Arrived Naples daybreak yesterday. Italians disembarked at once. Also our two American Cardinals. Next the Swiss reservists. Later the other “nationals” were escorted to trains for respective destinations. Eight American citizens, of which I am one, detained on board overnight. Now about to be placed on train with order to proceed without break to Swiss frontier. Every sign of war. No foreigners wanted here. Seemed yesterday as if we might be returned, but we were saved by the representatives of American Consul, coupled with lack of accommodation for the hosts of American citizens awaiting passage.

If possible will stop off at Rome. Will try return via Southern France to Bordeaux or via Marseilles to Barcelona, but developments might bring immediate and compulsory return or perhaps long detention. Italian papers report Germans 60 miles from Paris, also capture of 70,000 Russians on Polish front.

Ask M.J. O’Shea to see about N.T.C. [Napper Tandy Club] meetings, and Matt Hartford to save copies of G.A. [The Gaelic American newspaper] with my articles on Frederick the Great and on John P. Holland.

Sincerely, J.K.


In Rome, he was given a cordial and lengthy interview by the German ambassador.

Before leaving for Berlin, he posted another letter to Devoy:

Rome, September 7th, 1914

My dear Friend:

Stopped off here. O.K. Did not try to see representative of the big house till today. Had long talk. Greatly impressed with our wares and will see that they receive full and early consideration. Could not undertake from here to get interview with the head of the establishment, who is busy with some customers in the West, but will facilitate my getting there. Am told that some other concerns are likely to join their trust and some the competing trust. Mailed one of your orders from Naples and several from this city; also one of Mr. C. Rogers [Sir Roger Casement].

Scarcely possible to return through Switzerland and France as the theatre of war is westward bound. Will try Switzerland, Tyrol, Bavaria, Rhineland to Rotterdam or maybe try to cross to London, Dublin, and Queenstown.




He then traveled by train and boat over the Alps to Berlin, the ground shifting beneath his feet from day to day as one country after another entered the war. He observed with dread the buildup taking place to what would surely be a catastrophic conflict.

In Berlin he met with ex-Chancellor Prince von Buelow, who offered him help 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, travelling 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. Before sailing, he sent letter to his sister Margaret, who lived in Fairview, Clontarf, Dublin (as did Devoy’s nephew Peter):

Rotterdam, Holland

September 12, 1914

My dear Margaret:

No doubt you will be surprised to learn that I am on my way from the Alps. My health is much improved but conditions on the Continent are not healthy enough to induce me to remain longer. Besides funds are running low so have your purse-strings open, when and if, I reach the Tolka.

Your affectionate brother,

John Kenny


Despite having brought extra funds of his own to cover the trip’s expenses, Kenny ran out of money. His sister Margaret lent him money and refused repayment, telling him to consider it a donation to the cause.

Using the same fictitious address as before, he sent the following letter to Devoy:


September 12, 1914

My dear Friend:

Wrote you from Naples and Rome and forwarded orders from those and other points.

Saw representatives of big house who became greatly interested in the goods and will try to do business. Tried to see the head of establishment, but have not. This about summarizes contents of previous letters which may not have reached you.

Visited Cologne Gazette and Frankfurter Zeitung. Germans seem confident. Rumor of a new arm – a great long range gun designed to command the Channel at Calais and probably reach the English coast. Popular belief that a new frontier will lie west of the Vosges Mountains reaching diagonally to Channel.

Did fairly well coming through, trains scarce, walking (occasionally) good, but I’m not so old and carry but little baggage and no adipose. I have slept at the foot of a gum tree in Australia years ago. The foraging is very good and that counts.”



In Dublin, 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 travelling throughout the country to gather information. He left after repeated from the authorities, arriving back in New York on October 2.

Back in New York, Kenny met with Casement, who was enthusiastic – boyishly so, Kenny noted, with no foreboding of his own imminent death. Kenny also met with Joe McGarrity of Philadelphia, and John A. McGarry who had traveled from Chicago to New York.

He had managed to return safely from a 7-week long trip through ten countries, carrying incriminating evidence of what could be considered war-time crimes and treason. He was now known by the British authorities as someone to be watched.

But in early November, he agreed to run a second mission, back to Europe.





John Kenny circa 1910
John Kenny circa 1910

Fianna na hEireann


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