Kenney, James Francis (1884–1946), archivist and historian, was born 6 December 1884 in a small farmhouse near the village of Marysville in the township of Tyendinaga, Hastings County, Ontario, Canada, the only child of Martin Kenney, farmer, and his wife Mary (née McCullough). Martin's grandfather, James Kenney from Queen's County (Co. Laois), emigrated to Canada with his wife around 1820; Mary's father, James McCullough from Co. Monaghan, was a presbyterian but she was raised in the catholic religion of her mother, Catherine Anne McAuley, whose father, John McAuley, was from Ballycastle, Co. Antrim.
He was educated in the Belleville, Ontario public school system. He later studied at the University of Toronto (BA 1907), the University of Wisconsin (Madison; MA 1908), and Columbia University, New York, where he commenced a Ph.D. thesis on the documentary sources for the early history of Ireland. He was greatly influenced by a lecture given by Douglas Hyde (qv) in Toronto on 17 May 1906, and joined the branch of the Gaelic League that was founded in the city some days later. He learned Irish and remained a member of the organisation for the rest of his life.
In June 1912 he joined the staff of the Public Archives of Canada in Ottawa, where in March 1926 he became director of historical research and publicity, a position he held until his death, except while acting as dominion archivist in 1935–7. His professional publications include a catalogue (1925) of the paintings and drawings in the Public Archives, and an edition (1932) of a journal relating to the foundation of Churchill. In 1927 he spent five months in Ireland researching archival material of Canadian interest in Irish repositories. During the visit he established fruitful relationships with various Irish historians, most notably Richard Irvine Best (qv), Paul Grosjean (d. 1964), and Eoin MacNeill (qv).
His special interest was the sources for early Irish history, the subject of his doctoral thesis, for which he gained his Ph.D. in 1927. Columbia University Press published the thesis (1929) in its Records of Civilisation series under the title The Sources for the early history of Ireland, i : ecclesiastical. A monumental reference work of over 800 closely-printed pages, it includes a synthesis of the history and literature of pre-Norman Ireland and introduces 659 texts of ecclesiastical origin or association. Details of the manuscripts, published editions, reviews and associated literature are provided for each text. Critically acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic, the book has been an indispensable resource for students of early Irish history since its publication. While some of the content is now outdated, the work as a whole has not been superseded. A facsimile edition with line revisions, addenda and corrigenda by Ludwig Bieler (qv) was published by Irish University Press in 1966, and there have been a number of subsequent issues. Kenney worked on a companion volume dealing with sources for secular history, but failed to complete it.
His outstanding contribution to historical studies was acknowledged in both Ireland and Canada: he received the Tailteann award for scholarship (1932), and two honorary doctorates (LLD, University of Ottawa, 1936; D.Litt., NUI, 1937). He was a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and was active in various other cultural organisations, particularly the Canadian Catholic Historical Association, which he founded in 1933 and of which he was secretary. He also served as secretary of the Royal Society of Canada, and as president of the American Catholic Historical Association.
Kenney was a devout Catholic. He married Dympna Byrne, daughter of Laurence V. and Mary (née O'Loane) Byrne of Fergus, Ontario; the couple had no children. He was described as ‘transparently honest and profoundly modest; his rather solemn mien concealed a sly sense of humour and a strongly emotional nature’ (Burt). He died of a heart attack at his home in Ottawa on 4 June 1946. Under the terms of his will, his library was presented to UCD. His papers are in the custody of the Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa.