Kerney, Leopold Harding (1881–1962), diplomat, was born 11 December 1881 in Dublin, youngest among nine children (two of whom died in childhood) of Philip Joseph Kerney, a well known journalist, sub-editor of the Dublin Daily Express and editor of the Weekly Irish Times, and Annie Kerney (née Knight). He was brought up in Sandymount on the south side of Dublin city, was educated in Dublin, and spent some years at TCD, though he left without graduating. In 1901 he left Ireland and spent ten years travelling through Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, and Italy. Settling in Paris in 1912, Kerney became the chief accountant at Lucile, a leading fashion house. He also acted as manager of Lucile for a period during the first world war.
Kerney travelled to Dublin in the summer of 1919, and on 31 July Arthur Griffith (qv) appointed him Irish commercial representative in Paris. The post was referred to generally as ‘the Irish consul’, and Kerney dealt with commercial and consular matters. He opposed the 1921 Anglo–Irish treaty, and left the Irish office in Paris in 1923. He remained in Paris to 1926 as a consul of the republican dáil, assisting the opponents of the treaty in press and propaganda activities in France. Following the split in Sinn Féin in March 1926 and the foundation of Fianna Fáil in May 1926, Kerney found his sources of finance drying up and he was forced to close his clandestine consulate. He returned to the world of business and commerce, and for the remainder of the 1920s worked as an estate agent in Paris.
When Fianna Fáil came to power in 1932, Kerney, who was one of four envoys who had resigned over the treaty, was the first of them to return to External Affairs. In April 1932, with the new government only a month and a half in office, he was appointed commercial attaché (redesignated ‘commercial secretary’ in August 1932) to the Irish legation in Paris. Following his reappointment, Kerney was subject to what Éamon de Valera (qv) called ‘a most unjustifiable and very mean attack’ on his character in the dáil, leading to de Valera's declaring that Kerney was ‘an honourable man’ (Dáil Éireann deb., liii, col. 270, 13 June 1934). However, a simmering resentment at the reinstatement of the four envoys remained, though it was submerged within the internal workings of the Department of External Affairs.
It was expected that with his trade and business contacts in the French capital, Kerney would prove valuable in developing Irish trade with France, Belgium, and Holland. As the economic war with Britain developed, the Irish Free State hoped to expand further its foreign trade through continental Europe. With this in mind, Kerney moved from Paris to Madrid in August 1935 as first minister plenipotentiary to Spain, following a decision of the executive council in June 1935. He presented his credentials to President Zamora on 3 September 1935, and in a speech drafted by Joseph Walshe (qv) stressed the historic links between Ireland and Spain. Kerney began to develop Irish trade with Spain, but the Spanish political situation increasingly absorbed his attention. He reported to Dublin on the rise of the right-wing catholic José Maria Gil Robles in the autumn of 1935 and the election of the Popular Front government in February 1936. Though not always aware of tensions within the Spanish military, Kerney clearly showed Dublin that civil war was only a matter of time, writing that ‘the spirit of civil war is very manifest . . . Spain is heading for civil war unless the government takes very prompt measures to render excesses impossible’ (NAI, DFA 19/93, Kerney to Walshe, 17 April 1936). Kerney continued to report on the disintegration of civil society in Spain up to May 1936, but at the end of the month he was diagnosed with polio and, following a period of treatment in Madrid, was recuperating at La Toja on the Galacian coast when the civil war broke out.
The fighting in the civil war cut off Kerney from republican Spain and he was unable to return to Madrid. Met by the nationalist commander Gen. Mola at Burgos, he was escorted to the French border. Crossing into France, he remained at Saint-Jean de Luz, where the Madrid diplomatic corps had reassembled, for the duration of the conflict. Kerney remained accredited to the Madrid government, but he did not attempt to hide his preferences for Franco and the nationalists. In March 1937 he unsuccessfully suggested to de Valera that Dublin recognise Franco before the collapse of the republican forces. Throughout the Spanish civil war Kerney remained on the sidelines of Irish policy towards the conflict, the substantial policy issues being decided in Dublin by Joseph Walshe and Éamon de Valera.
Following the capture of Frank Ryan (qv) by Spanish nationalist forces on 15 March 1938 and Ryan's subsequent sentence to death, Kerney worked hard, on de Valera's instructions, to secure Ryan's release from jail in Burgos. Kerney visited Ryan in jail on several occasions and employed a well connected lawyer, Jaime Michels de Champourcin, to undertake the case. De Champourcin had links with the Spanish and German intelligence services, and through these links Ryan made his way into the custody of German military intelligence on 25 July 1940 and was taken to Berlin via France.
Kerney had moved to San Sebastian in February 1939, and on 10 April had presented his credentials to Gen. Franco in Burgos. His wartime reports contained much rumour and gossip about events in Madrid and the loyalties of Franco's supporters, and many suggestions that Spain was about to enter the war on the side of the Germans. Though he had a number of contacts in Madrid society, his reports tended to be lacking in analysis when compared to those of his contemporaries in the Irish diplomatic service.
Ryan's escape brought Kerney to the attention of the British intelligence services, who considered him to have pro-Axis leanings and to be closer to de Valera than he was. Kerney also came to the attention of Irish military intelligence and the Irish censor. His mail showed that the Irish legation in Madrid was acting as a postbox through which correspondence passed, using Kerney's diplomatic bag, between Charles Bewley (qv), Frank Ryan, and the wife of German intelligence officer Helmut Clissman (qv), Budge Clissman (neé Mulcahy), who had stayed with the Kerneys in Madrid in December 1940, and their relatives in Ireland.
Edmund Vessenmayer, a German Foreign Office official and adviser on Ireland, attempted to use Kerney as a conduit to bring about a rapprochement between de Valera and the IRA. Clissman met with Kerney in November 1941 and in January and May 1942, and arranged a meeting between Kerney and Vessenmayer in August 1942. Kerney unwisely agreed to the meeting and told Dublin that Vessenmayer considered German victory inevitable and Irish neutrality to be limited, to which Kerney replied that Irish neutrality would be staunchly defended, and the démarche came to nothing. A series of articles entitled ‘A study in neutrality’, published by Professor T. Desmond Williams (qv) in the Leader and later the Irish Press in 1953, paraphrased Vessenmayer's reported remarks that Kerney had requested arms from Germany for Ireland, in order that Ireland might no longer remain neutral. Williams did acknowledge that Vessenmayer might have misrepresented Kerney's views; however, Kerney brought a libel action against Williams, and the matter was settled out of court when Williams apologised and withdrew the statements.
Kerney's reporting lacked both amplitude and candour and he was recalled to Dublin in 1943 for a debriefing. He returned to Spain, but again proved to be something of a law unto himself. On Hitler's death, without seeking advice from Dublin, he visited the German chargé d'affaires in Madrid to express his sympathies. Kerney was not a natural diplomat. He was prone to acting independently without ascertaining government policy, and his meeting with Vessenmayer showed he had forgotten that he was no longer simply a trade representative dealing with technical issues but the representative of the Irish government. He remained in Spain until 11 December 1946, when he retired, having reached the statutory retirement age of 65. After his retirement, he led an Irish trade mission to Argentina and Chile in 1947.
Kerney died 8 June 1962 at his residence at 5 Merton Road, Rathmines, Dublin. At the time of his death, he was one of the oldest surviving members of the pre-independence Irish foreign service. Éamon de Valera and Frank Aiken (qv) attended Kerney's funeral, which took place at the Church of the Holy Name, Beechwood Avenue, Rathmines, Dublin. He was buried at Deansgrange cemetery on 11 June 1962.
He left an estate of £2,065 to his widow, Raymonde (m. 14 August 1914), daughter of Pierre Elie, cooper, and Eugénie Julie Verdier, of Saint-Caprice, France. They had three children: John/Jean, Micheline Kerney-Walshe (qv), and Eamon.