Kearney, John (1741–1813), provost of TCD and bishop of Ossory, was born in Co. Dublin, second son of Michael Kearney, surgeon-barber of Dublin; his mother's name is not known. He entered TCD as a student on 10 October 1757 at the age of 15, and was elected as a scholar (1760), graduated BA (1762), and was elected a fellow of the college (1764). He was awarded a DD (1777) and was appointed professor of oratory (1781). He gave the Archbishop King lectures on two occasions (1782, 1787). In 1799, after serving as vice-provost, he was appointed provost of the college, a position he held for six and a half years. He became bishop of Ossory in 1806.
Although he is generally regarded as having been a worthy rather than memorable provost of Trinity, he is remembered as an amiable and witty man of taste and refinement, well known in London and Dublin society. A founding member of the RIA in 1785, he was active on many of its committees. He was a shrewd man of affairs, piloting the college through the potentially tempestuous period of the 1801 act of union and beyond. With his relatively modest family background, his appointment as provost and subsequent installation as bishop of Ossory (2 February 1806) are a testament to his own abilities, rather than patronage and family influence. He is perhaps best remembered as the first man to recognise and encourage the genius of Thomas Moore (qv), with whom he remained friends until his death. His lasting contribution seems to have been as an administrator rather than an academic, but he is generally credited with being the author of a vaguely patriotic poem, The ghost of Walter (1798), which warned against the dangers of the French revolution and urged ‘Henry’ – probably Henry Grattan (qv) – on to greater efforts for Ireland. Moderate in politics, he was adept at keeping his own counsel, but occasionally made his views public (a John Kearney of ‘the city of Dublin’ was a signatory to the petition on behalf of the catholics of Ireland presented to George III in 1793). He married and had two sons, John and Thomas Henry, and three daughters, Rose Lloyd, Frances, and Waller. In keeping with a common practice of the time, as bishop of Ossory he appointed his sons to lucrative and prestigious positions within the diocese: John was chancellor of Ossory from 1808 until his death in 1838, and Thomas Henry was prebendiary of Ossory 1810–12. Kearney died at the bishop's palace in Kilkenny on 22 May 1813. His portrait can be seen in the provost's house, TCD.
His older brother, Michael Kearney (1733–1814), clergyman and professor of history at TCD, was born in Dublin and entered Trinity on 11 June 1747, being elected a scholar three years later, graduating (1752), and obtaining a fellowship (1757). He was co-opted as a senior fellow in 1769, and held the chair of history from that date until 1778. That year he resigned and accepted the college benefice of Tullyaughnish, Co. Donegal, and was appointed to the archdeaconry of Raphoe in 1798. Like his brother, he was a founder member of the RIA. He published Lectures concerning history: read during the year 1775, in Trinity College Dublin (1776), and contributed ‘Thoughts on the history of alphabetic writing’ (1789), ‘The evil effects of polytheism, or, the morals of the heathen’ (1790), and ‘On the powers of painting to express mixed passions’ (1795) to the RIA's Transactions. He also contributed notes to the edition by Thomas Crofton Croker (qv) of Boswell's Life of Doctor Johnson. He died 11 January 1814, and is buried in St Ann's, Dublin.