Kenyon, John (1812–69), catholic priest and Young Irelander, was born at Thomond Gate, Limerick city, eldest son among three sons and three daughters of Patrick Kenyon, grocery and hardware merchant, and Mary Kenyon (née McMahon). One of five siblings to take religious vows, he matriculated at Maynooth College (1828) after early schooling in Limerick. He was ordained (1835) after winning distinctions in logic, philosophy, and classics, and assigned to the united parishes of Kilraghtis, Doora, and Templemayley, Co. Clare. In 1836 he was transferred to Ennis, Co. Clare, but after harassing a family that had converted to protestantism he was moved to Kilmore parish, Co. Tipperary, in December 1839. A strong supporter of the temperance movement, in May 1841 he addressed a large meeting in honour of Fr Theobald Mathew (qv) at Toomyvara, north Co. Tipperary. After a brief spell (1842) in the parish of Ballynaclogh, near Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, he was appointed curate (11 December 1842) of Meenagh parish, later known as Templederry, north Co. Tipperary. A great reader and collector of books, he was a fascinating conversationalist and an impressive preacher. His lively personality, keen intellect, and eccentrically playful wit made him a popular local figure; his friend John Martin (qv) later concluded that ‘nobody perhaps was ever more gifted for friendship’ (Fogarty, 179).
Moving from a position in the 1830s where he blamed the bulk of Irish crime on alcohol abuse, Kenyon argued (May 1842) in a letter to the Nenagh Guardian that agrarian crimes were caused by poverty. A staunch nationalist, he joined the Repeal Association in 1843 and identified with the Young Ireland party. During debates on the Irish university bill at Conciliation Hall, Dublin, in early June 1845, he strongly criticised a speech by John O'Connell (qv) and supported the principle of non-denominational university education. He was much valued by the Young Irelanders as one of their few well-known clerical supporters, and he often defended them from charges of infidelity: Charles Gavan Duffy (qv) described him as ‘a tall, pale, scholarly man, who spoke with the aplomb of one expressing well-weighed convictions’ (Duffy, 204). Kenyon was particularly critical of Daniel O'Connell's (qv) reliance on ‘moral force’, which he dismissed as ‘this filthy caricature of virtue – this vile profanation of holy patriotism’ (Fogarty, 93). He seceded from the Repeal Association with the Young Irelanders in July 1846 on the question of physical force, and the following month published a lengthy article in The Nation, stating his opposition to unconditional pacifism, which was published as a pamphlet, Physical and moral force (1846).
He joined the Young Ireland Irish Confederation on its founding in January 1847, and was elected to its council. The following month he engaged in a controversy on slavery with the social reformer James Haughton (qv): Kenyon argued that its evils had been exaggerated by fanatical abolitionists and that the confederation should have no qualms about accepting donations from American slaveholders. A regular and pointed critic of O'Connell (who was a passionate critic of slavery) in the press, he shocked nationalist opinion by describing him shortly after his death as an unprincipled huckster ‘who patronised liars, parasites, and bullies’ and whose death ‘was no loss whatever’ to Ireland (Nation, 5 June 1847). The letter outraged O'Connellites and aggravated accusations that the Young Irelanders had hounded O'Connell to his death. Kenyon's presence in Limerick during the general election in August 1847 provoked a riot and he had to be rescued from a hostile crowd by fellow priests. His spirited behaviour on this occasion earned him the admiration of many confederates and he received an ovation at a confederate meeting in Dublin on 30 August, although moderate leaders such as William Smith O'Brien (qv) regarded him as a dangerous liability.
Kenyon gravitated towards confederate extremists such as John Mitchel (qv), who became a close friend, and from February 1848 wrote regularly for Mitchel's revolutionary United Irishman. Like Mitchel he was strongly influenced by the proposals of James Fintan Lalor (qv) for a nationwide rent strike that would spark a social revolution and transfer land ownership to the peasantry. Kenyon's wild exhortations to gather arms for revolt, made to an assembly at Templederry on 16 April 1848, resulted in censure from his bishop, Patrick Kennedy (1786–1850) of Killaloe, and on 6 May he was suspended from his clerical functions. Suspension appears to have made him even more ardent, and after Mitchel's conviction for treason felony (26 May) Kenyon became one of the confederation's most vocal insurrectionists. However, some weeks later he had discussions with his bishop, who promised to reinstate him if he agreed not to take the initiative in any rebellion. It seems that Kenyon accepted these terms, but did not inform his confederate colleagues. When the Young Ireland leaders J. B. Dillon (qv) and T. F. Meagher (qv) arrived in Templederry in late July, expecting that Kenyon would give a lead to radical young clergy and help raise Tipperary and Limerick, he received them coolly and refused to assist their efforts or encourage his congregation to do so. He claimed that they had no chance of success, especially if they followed Smith O'Brien's chivalrous lead, and advised them to take loyalist hostages and requisition property. Kenyon later maintained that had the rising been properly organised he would have readily joined, and persuaded his parishioners to do likewise. Perhaps because of his mercurial personality and reputation for eccentricity, his Young Ireland colleagues showed surprisingly little ill-will towards him for his failure to match words with deeds, and afterwards he was, despite everything, popularly regarded as the ‘patriot priest’ of 1848.
Kenyon continued his involvement with nationalist politics and from 1849 became friendly with Thomas Clarke Luby (qv); they both editorialised in favour of an Irish republic in the short-lived Tipperary Tribune in the mid 1850s. When surviving Young Irelanders tried to seize control from the IRB of the funeral of Terence Bellew McManus (qv) in November 1861 their efforts and intrigues centred on Kenyon, who at one stage threatened to prevent the funeral by seizing the body. It was originally planned that Kenyon would give the graveside oration, but his speech was not fiery enough for the Fenian leader James Stephens (qv) and he was replaced as speaker. This ended his friendship with Luby and poisoned his attitude to Fenianism in general and Stephens in particular. Kenyon dismissed what he saw as the futility of revolutionary struggle without the intervention of friendly foreign powers, maintaining that the Irish people had shown themselves incapable of achieving their own freedom in 1848.
He was made parish priest of Templederry in 1860, but remained on chilly terms with the church hierarchy, inveighing against the National Association sponsored by Archbishop Paul Cullen (qv) on behalf of the candidacy of his dubious friend, the newspaper proprietor Peter Gill (qv), at county elections in 1865 and 1866. Kenyon, who had helped to care for Mitchel's family after Mitchel was transported in 1848, made occasional trips to Paris to see him during the 1860s; while visiting the city's Irish College in September 1866 both men were loudly cheered by clerical students. Kenyon died 21 March 1869 and was buried in Templederry.