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Former Resident of The Mount, Kilcock, Ran Secret Missions for Clan-na-Gael and I.R.B.

Fran Christ

In 1914, Co. Kildare native John Kenny ran a dangerous secret mission that helped set the stage for the 1916 Uprising.
John was born in Branganstown, Co. Kildare in 1847.  After spending a few years in Australia, he arrived in New York around 1870, where he joined Clan-na-Gael, the secretive Irish-American organization associated with the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He rose quickly through the ranks and by the early 1880s was the president of the New York Clan-na-Gael. John Devoy (whom Pearse called “the greatest of the Fenians) and Thomas Clarke, later arrested and imprisoned on an attempted bombing mission in London, were among the members.
In 1885, John left a very successful business in New York to bring his family back to Ireland, renting The Mount, a horse farm in Kilcock, Co. Kildare. There, while playing the part of a gentleman farmer, he ran high-level meetings and laundered funds coming in from America. His young daughter Margaret would be sent through town carrying a cake to a neighbor’s house as a signal that a meeting was to be held that night. The children were strictly warned never to speak of anything or anyone they saw at The Mount. John and his wife Annie worried they may have carried things too far when their youngest daughter Josephine, asked by a kindly neighbor “And how old are you?” answered “I really don’t think that’s any of your business.” 
Despite evident surveillance by G-men, the children enjoyed their years in Kilcock - but the stress took its toll on John’s marriage. In 1890, the family moved back to New York.  John and Annie separated, the children were sent to boarding schools in America and John returned to Ireland – first to Naas and later Dublin, where he continued his revolutionary work. His frequent trips between Ireland and America served as a cover for his role as the Clan-na-Gael/IRB liaison.
Tom Clarke, released in 1898 after fifteen brutal years in prison, found his way back to New York, eventually serving as Business Manager on John Devoy’s newspaper The Gaelic American. Clarke returned to Dublin in 1907 to prepare the way for rebellion; John, who had returned to New York, took Clarke’s place as the newspaper’s Business Manager. By 1914, John was once again the president of the New York Clan-na-Gael, as well as the Vice President of the I.R.B. Veterans Association, and a founding member of the provisional committee formed to arm the Irish National Volunteers, as well as a member of many other Irish organizations.

Secret Mission – 1914
On August 4, 1914 Great Britain declared war on Germany. Under John Devoy and Sir Roger Casement, the top Clan-na-Gael officials in New York arranged a meeting with the German Ambassador to the US. They presented their plan to the Germans: if the Germans would sell them guns and provide military leaders, the Irish would start an uprising in Ireland, thus putting England at war on two fronts.  Casement and Devoy, anxious to present their case themselves but unable to travel, sent an envoy to Europe. They chose John.
John sailed on August 14, landing in Naples.  After finally getting permission to land on the condition that he proceed directly to Switzerland, John slipped into Rome. Finding the German embassy, he was surprised when his credentials gained him immediate entrance and a lengthy interview with Ambassador Count von Flutow. Von Flutow read the Clan-na-Gael’s proposal and questioned him extensively about it. At the end of their meeting, von Flutow called Berlin on John's behalf, and issued him an Imperial Pass to facilitate his travel through Germany.
For the next ten days, John crisscrossed Europe in the midst of the mobilization of millions of men. The Imperial pass allowed him to ride on troop trains, where he was often the only civilian. The rest of the time, he walked, foraged for food, and slept outdoors when necessary. He recalled his difficult years in Australia fifty years earlier as good training for this mission. While never quite catching up with the Kaiser, he did meet in Berlin with the ex-Chancellor Prince von Beulow, who also read the proposal. He offered to help John reach the Kaiser but John, seeing that his return through Naples had been cut off by the war, decided he had accomplished his mission. Von Beulow warned him against heading for Ireland, which would require travel through England where capture “might mean the 'Tower' with unpleasant possibilities.”
Nonetheless, when John arrived in Rotterdam to learn he had missed by several hours the ship for New York, he headed over to Ireland. There he met with his old friends Tom Clarke and Patrick Pearse, as well as Sean MacDermott, and updated them on his mission which until then was known only to Devoy and Casement.
Arriving back in New York six weeks after he had left, John lunched with Casement, who was enthusiastic – boyishly so, thought John – about the success of the trip. Casement would leave in a few days on his own trip to Germany. Captured by the British while trying to bring the German guns into Ireland, Sir Roger Casement would be hanged in London on August 3, 1916.
On November 14, John again sailed – this time for Ireland, to bring the money from the Clan-na-Gael to buy the guns. Making it successfully through the checkpoints in Liverpool – much to Clarke’s and the others’ surprise - he delivered the money to The O’Rahilly and received a receipt from MacNeill. He spent the next few weeks meeting with and talking to old friends, many whom he knew as he had, as president of the Clan-na-Gael, sponsored their numerous US lecture and fund-raising tours. He met with Pearse, Clarke, The O’Rahilly, MacDermott, MacDonagh, MacNeill, and Plunkett, where the topics of discussion ranged from the political mood of the country and its readiness for rebellion to the best types of ammunition and guns to purchase. When the government suppressed the newspapers, an imaginative suggestion was put forth to use a Zeppelin or airplane to distribute bundles of leaflets in Ireland.
John reported that contrary to popular opinion, people’s political leanings were not predictable. He "found many separatists among the so-called garrison, many shoneens among the workingmen, and so on.”
The day before John sailed, he attended a meeting at James Connolly’s relative’s house. Maeve Cavanaugh arrived with the news that Connolly was on the run, having been warned of a warrant for his arrest for an alleged treasonable speech in Liberty Hall the night before.
John met for the last time with Clarke and MacDermott in Wynnes Hotel. That evening, just before John left for the Liverpool boat, the O'Rahilly called to see him on a personal matter. That was the last John was to see of the men of Easter Week.
Years later, John would write: "They were the stuff of which is 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.
"Within two years Dublin had risen, Ireland was aflame and continued virtually in armed rebellion until De Valera hung out the white flag."
John lived out his life in New York, still active in politics and frequently writing articles for the Gaelic American. Estranged from his wife and family, unable to return to Ireland, he was trying unsuccessfully to get into a nursing home when he died from pneumonia at age 77 on December 27, 1924. His death was reported in the headlines of the Gaelic American. His passing was mourned by the many Irish organizations in the city, and a special Mass was said in his honor for all the Irish societies, sponsored by the Cummann na mBan. Among the many letters of sympathy printed in the newspaper for several weeks after his death, was the Cummann na mBan’s:
"The organization feels that in the death of John Kenny they have lost 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; ...a soul that never valued the material things of this world."

See also:


An article from Fran Christ, of New York, on John Kenny, a Kildareman who ran secret missions for Clan na Gael and the IRB. Our thanks to Fran

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