Kearney, Charles (c.1745–1824), priest, was born in Cashel, Co. Tipperary. The name Charles may have been given in honour of Prince Charles Edward Stuart if he was born, as has been stated, in the year of the Young Pretender's rebellion, but nothing more is known of his background. He was related to various notable catholic families, some with French connections. He entered the Irish College, Paris, in 1762 as a pupil of the fifth form, was ordained in 1772, and was appointed vicar general of Tarbes diocese, in southern France in 1779. He seems not to have taken up this position; instead he was appointed rector of the Irish College, Paris, in 1780. There was some opposition to his appointment. On 29 May 1780 he wrote to his friend Dr Patrick Plunket (qv) of Meath: ‘It was said that the house would be lost if I were placed at the head of it; and that I would be prejudiced against certain provinces.’ John Carpenter (qv), archbishop of Dublin, was also an opponent. ‘I was represented as proud, distant, tyrannical, full of prejudices’, Kearney wrote to Plunket in September 1783 (Boyle, IER (1908), 455).
As rector of the Irish College Kearney inherited massive debts for legal fees, building repairs, provisions, and pensions. Hoping in 1788 that the college would benefit from the developments in French politics with the meeting of the states general, he was to be disappointed, and during the revolutionary period he had great difficulty in protecting the rights of the college; its very survival, and his own, were in question on many occasions. During the reign of terror he assisted noble ladies of his acquaintance by undertaking obligatory manual labour on their behalf, and obtained civil passes, thereby saving them from arrest (Miles Byrne, Memoirs, iii, 200). Kearney also allowed many French families to deposit title deeds and valuables in the Irish College during this period, protected as it was by international law.
Kearney travelled as an interpreter along with a secret mission from King Louis XVI to London in the autumn of 1792; around that same time, Kearney contrived with Louis XVI's confessor, his intimate friend, Abbé Henry Edgeworth (qv), and others to arrange the king's escape from prison. They had arranged for a boat to wait at Le Havre but the king refused to flee without his queen (ibid., 457). Kearney was present in disguise at the execution of Louis on 21 January 1793 and later recorded his impressions of the scene (ibid., 459). Suspicions about his part in these events made his position very precarious; in late autumn, he was denounced to the national assembly by Nicholas Madgett (qv) (d. 1813), who supported a revolt by a number of Irish students of the college. In May 1793 Kearney was summoned before the revolutionary tribunal at the Pantheon on suspicion of helping aristocratic families. Kearney, in common with other British subjects in France, was arrested in October 1793 and over the next three years was held at the Luxembourg and in his own home. Evidence was produced that he was implicated in the king's escape bid, and also that the duc de Fitzjames had thanked him for help given to his compatriots. Kearney was saved from execution because he had helped the revolutionary leader Camille Desmoulins during the latter's education. The Irish College was closed in 1793 and was leased for ten years by Kearney to Abbé Patrick MacDermott (d. 1812) as a school for young men.
Kearney found work giving private lessons, though always under suspicion for his royalist views. He was arrested again in 1800, charged with being implicated in an attempt on the life of Napoleon Bonaparte; he was released when no evidence was found against him. By 1807 an Irish College was reopened at rue du Cheval Vert, Paris. Kearney had to give an account of his handling of college funds during and since the revolution to an antagonistic bureau de surveillance. In a long and detailed letter to the administrator general, Dr John Baptist Walsh(e) (d. 1825), he explained how he had disbursed college monies, and recorded the great financial and accounting difficulties which the college had experienced in the chaos of revolution. He averred that the college had, despite its financial problems, flourished academically, and that he sought only a pension for himself, not the repayment of money he had personally expended in assisting many poor Irish people caught up in the revolution. A deficit in college funds of 50,000 francs, however, was discovered by the bureau, and Kearney was refused a pension. He continued to support himself by giving lessons.
Kearney's career was entirely in France, though he kept in contact with many priests and bishops in Ireland; in 1787 he was considered as a possible bishop of Ardfert, but he preferred to stay in Paris. In 1791 the provincial bishops of the Cashel diocese recommended him as their second choice to become archbishop of Cashel (Archiv. Hib., vii (1918–22), 1–19). Kearney agreed to transfer an important Irish medieval manuscript, the Book of Lecan, from the Irish College library to the RIA in 1787, just a few years before the Paris collection was looted and destroyed by sans-culottes. In 1820, at an advanced age, he again became rector of the Irish College at rue du Cheval Vert (latterly rue des Irlandais). He died in Paris in 1824 and was interred in the college vaults.