Browne, Thomas (1726–95), 4th Viscount Kenmare , improving landlord, and catholic activist, was born in April 1726, second (and only surviving) son among two sons and a daughter of Valentine Browne (qv), 3rd viscount, and his first wife, Honoria (d. 1730), second daughter of Col. Thomas Butler of Kilcash and sister of John, 15th earl of Ormond. The survival of sole male heirs over several generations meant that he was one of the few surviving landed catholic aristocrats, and on his father's death (1736) inherited estates of over 120,000 acres in Counties Kerry, Cork, and Limerick. Much of this was bog and mountain, and heavily encumbered with debt, having being badly mismanaged by John Asgill (qv), his grandfather's brother-in-law. In 1736 his aunt Katherine, wife of Don Louis da Cunha, Portuguese ambassador in London, became his guardian, and sent him to the English seminary at Douai (1736–40), until he was ordered to return home by the lord chancellor, Robert Jocelyn (qv); he was later educated at St Mary Hall, Oxford and Turin. Coming of age in 1747, he visited his estates and found ‘a large barren waste with monstrous great farms, few or no substantial tenants, and a general spirit of dirty poverty and indolence’ (Kenmare MSS, 214). Resolving to live on and improve his estates, he introduced linen manufacturing (without much success), experimented with agricultural innovations, and reclaimed thousands of acres of mountain and bog. He encouraged his tenants to improve their farms but deplored the pride, drunkenness, and social pretensions of ‘the middling sort among the Irish’, noting that their sons all had to be ‘priests, physicians, or French officers’ (Kenmare MSS, 230). Concerned at the drunkenness and disorder that accompanied the annual horse races at Killarney, he suppressed them and compensated local publicans with a rent abatement. He strongly promoted the development of Killarney as a tourist resort. An English visitor to his home there in 1760 was impressed with his enthusiasm for improvements, his good taste, and his ‘easy, mild, affable, and polite’ personality, and noted that ‘Ireland would have a flourishing kingdom did but one third of her nobility copy his example’ (Derrick, i, 112–13).
From about 1763 to 1775 he resided mainly in London and on the Continent, but he returned regularly to Kerry to scrutinise his accounts. Only in 1768 did he free his estates from encumbrances and litigations, the latter frequently undertaken under the discovery clauses of the penal laws. To clear his debts he was forced to sell thousands of acres of forestry. His prudent management helped increase estate rentals from £3,000 a year in the 1740s to £12,000 in the 1790s.
Wary of antagonising the government, he resisted offers in 1760 to join the newly established Catholic Committee, a body formed to petition for relief from the penal laws, though he supported the committee's efforts to draw up an oath of loyalty for Irish catholics. But he joined the committee, soon after his permanent return to Ireland in 1775, and became its effective leader. Anxious to demonstrate his loyalty to the crown, he helped recruit catholics to fight for Britain in America and received the thanks of Tralee's protestant clergy for his exertions against Rightboy agrarian protesters in the 1780s. Always cautious and conservative, he believed that catholics should petition in a deferential manner and be prepared to accept partial relief; he was mainly responsible for hiving off from the 1782 relief bill (introduced by Luke Gardiner (qv)) controversial clauses to remove penalties against catholic education and intermarriage with protestants, so that concessions on property rights and religious freedom could be achieved. His most innovative proposal in these years was to suggest (c.1782) a scheme whereby £1 would be levied in every catholic parish in Ireland to defray the expense of petitioning and to establish a legal and educational fund, but he declined to push this through. In the early 1780s he strongly opposed involving the Catholic Committee in the campaign for parliamentary reform. At the Volunteer reform convention of 1783 his kinsman Sir Boyle Roche (qv) managed to prevent discussion of the catholic question by his unauthorised (but accurate) claims that Kenmare had no desire to press for further relief. At a Catholic Committee meeting in May 1784 he sought an explicit resolution disavowing calls for further relief, but his caution angered colleagues and the meeting broke up acrimoniously with no resolutions passed.
In the early 1790s the committee's dominance by conservative aristocrats was challenged by middle-class activists such as John Keogh (qv) and Edward Byrne (qv). On 14 March 1791 Kenmare's assurances to government of the committee's compliance were angrily contradicted by colleagues. The majority on the committee refused to disavow calls by the radical Catholic Society for complete emancipation; this widened the breach, and on 27 December 1791 Kenmare led a group that seceded from the committee, declaring their willingness to leave the timing and extent of any further relief to the government. A degree of reconciliation was effected in summer 1792, and Kenmare did not oppose the Catholic Convention elections of 1792. But to the annoyance of middle-class activists, Dublin Castle still regarded Kenmare as the main catholic spokesman (crediting him with more influence then he actually possessed), and he was the first catholic notified of the concessions contained in the 1793 relief bill.
He does not appear to have been well suited for public life: one middle-class opponent dismissed him as ‘a mere second-rate negotiator’, secretive with his colleagues but easily duped by the Castle, ‘cold, unconciliating, timid yet fond of petty power, influenced by puny ambition’ (Wyse, 102). He died 9 September 1795 at Killarney House, Co. Kerry; his Dublin residence was Kenmare House, 35 North Great George's St.
He married (1750) Anne, daughter of Thomas Cooke, of Painestown, Co. Carlow; they had a daughter, Katherine, and a son, his heir Valentine Browne (qv).