Kennedy, Tristram Edward (1805–85), lawyer, land agent, and politician, was born 27 June 1805 at Inishowen, Co. Donegal, the twelfth of fourteen children of John Pitt Kennedy (1759–1811), a respected Church of Ireland clergyman, and his wife, Mary Kennedy, only daughter of Thomas Cary of Loughash, Co. Tyrone. Tristram had two distinguished brothers: John Pitt Kennedy (qv), a soldier, became the first inspector general of national schools in Ireland; and Evory Kennedy (qv), an obstetrician, was master of the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin. Thomas Carlyle wrote of how close a relationship the three had to one another. Kennedy's ancestors had migrated from Scotland to Ulster during the early seventeenth century. One, Horas Kennedy (1648–1714), was sheriff of Londonderry during the siege of 1688–9 and subsequently enjoyed a reputation as ‘the chief promoter and main encourager of the memorable closing of its gates’ (Kenny, 17).
Educated at Derry Free Grammar School, Kennedy first became an attorney. In 1828, like Horas, he was appointed sheriff of Londonderry, in which position he was invited to chair a lengthy and controversial debate between protestant and catholic clergymen, and did so to the satisfaction of both sides. In 1829 he had himself struck off the roll of attorneys in order to become a barrister. In 1834, by then a member of Lincoln's Inn in London and of King's Inns, he was called to the bar.
He resolved to improve the standard of legal education. When he opened the door of his Dublin Law Institute in 1839, he welcomed students to classes in a discipline that had not been taught systematically in Ireland for at least two centuries and then only in areas where the brehon law prevailed. He worked closely with Thomas Wyse (qv), an Irish MP, to reform legal education. Their actions stimulated the academic study of English law at universities in Britain and Ireland, hastened the introduction of qualifying examinations for both branches of the profession, and undermined the ideological rationale of a statutory provision that had, since 1542, required young men to attend an English inn of court before being admitted to practise at the Irish bar. Kennedy made a significant contribution to the professionalisation of the middle classes.
The report of the United Kingdom select committee on legal education of 1846, for which Kennedy and Wyse were chiefly responsible, has been described by a modern English authority as being of ‘fundamental importance’, in that ‘the history of legal education in England over the past 120 years is largely an account of the struggle to implement the recommendations of the 1846 committee and the effects of that struggle’ ([Ormrod], Report of the committee on legal education [in England and Wales] . . . March 1971, HC 1971 (4595), pp. 7–8). The history of legal education in Ireland has been no less influenced by that report.
The Dublin Law Institute collapsed in 1845, due largely to the hostility of the benchers of King's Inns. Shortly after its demise, Kennedy ended his legal career. Whether in doing so he acted out of bitter disappointment is unknown. In any event, he next found employment as a land agent on the Bath estates in Co. Monaghan. There his reforming work during the great famine won him the admiration of catholics in general, and of the Tenant League in particular. The Carrickmacross lace industry, which he established during this period, became internationally renowned.
In 1852 Kennedy was elected to the house of commons by catholic voters as an ‘independent’ representative for Co. Louth, which borders Co. Monaghan, where he had been working. His contributions to debates were concerned largely with landlord and tenant matters or national and industrial education. But the independent Irish party to which he belonged was internally divided and, by 1856, it had lost two of its principal leaders. Frederick Lucas (qv) was dead and Charles Gavan Duffy (qv) had emigrated to Australia (stopping on his way at Kennedy's London house). In 1857 Kennedy lost his seat. Having failed to be re-elected two years later, Kennedy ran again in Co. Louth in April 1865. He was privately opposed by Archbishop Paul Cullen (qv), who wanted a candidate who would support the educational reforms that were then being sought by the catholic church, which some observers considered to be sectarian. Kennedy's victory in 1865 was rashly represented by some observers as a rebuff to the catholic hierarchy.
Kennedy himself now joined John Blake Dillon (qv) to build bridges between Irish catholics and independent liberals, and between Irish reformers and English Liberals. In December 1865 the two men acted as joint secretaries for ‘a considerable number of Irish representatives’ (Kenny, 50) in arranging a personal interview with Gladstone on the land question. This may well have been a significant step towards the creation of a new alliance on Ireland, but the initiative was stillborn. Dillon had contracted cholera and died an unexpected death at the height of his powers in 1866. For his part Kennedy withdrew from the election of 1868 in the face of a blatantly sectarian campaign waged by the catholic candidate Matthew O'Reilly Dease (qv). In the election of 1874, aged almost seventy, Kennedy was prevailed upon to stand on a liberal ticket in Donegal but was not elected.
Kennedy was a member of the Dublin Social and Statistical Inquiry Society. He travelled to Belgium, where he studied institutional responses to poverty, and, in 1855, he wrote with W. K. Sullivan a booklet on industrial training, which was inspired partly by what he had seen in that country.
In 1862, at the age of fifty-seven, Tristram married Sarah Graham of Cossington, Somerset. The people of Carrickmacross presented his bride with a lace shawl, a marvellous piece of appliqué work, which was subsequently donated by members of their family to the National Museum, Dublin. The couple had seven children. Their descendants in England possess impressive portraits of Tristram and Sarah, both by Henry MacManus (qv). The couple lived in Somerset and London, but Tristram retained his house in Henrietta Street, Dublin, behind the King's Inns. There he gradually acquired three-quarters of the property along that elegant Georgian cul-de-sac, but failed to persuade the benchers to buy the entire street and to erect a gate so that the area might be converted to chambers for the Dublin inn. It was a lost opportunity which those who later contemplated the sad state of many of the houses in Henrietta Street had reason to regret.
As an old man, Tristram showed that he had not entirely abandoned his interest in the reform of law and legal education, penning two tracts that were published in 1877–8. Seven years later, on 20 November 1885, he died in his sleep at his residence in Weston-super-Mare. He was buried at Cossington village church. Charles Gavan Duffy wrote in sympathy to his family from the south of France, describing Tristram as ‘honest and gallant’ (Kenny, 60). The independent opposition which Duffy, Kennedy, and others had initiated and maintained at a difficult time came to be highly respected by C. S. Parnell (qv).
It was Kennedy's lot to live at a time when the movement for repeal of the Act of Union foundered, when Irish members at Westminster were weakened by their divisions, and when, above all, Ireland was scarred by the great famine and by the misery of many Irish tenants. The scion of a staunchly protestant Ulster family, Tristram came to represent the interests of poor catholics in parliament. His contributions to politics were pragmatic, his work for reform practical, and his actions were such as to justify his description of himself as having been ‘always faithful and true to the poor people’ (Kenny, 61).