Kearney, John (Ó Cearnaigh, Seán) (c.1545–c.1587), translator, author of the first book in the Irish language to be printed in Ireland, was a native of Leyney, Co. Sligo. Details of his family background and early education are unknown, but he probably received some training at a bardic school. He matriculated at Cambridge University in November 1561 and resided at Magdalene College. It was probably during his time at Cambridge that he adopted the protestant faith. He was awarded the BA degree in February 1565 (new style). Six years later (1571) his Irish catechism Aibidil Gaoidheilge & caiticiosma was published, by which time he had been ordained and had returned to Ireland. Kearney served as a minister in the Church of Ireland, and was appointed treasurer of St Patrick's cathedral, Dublin, in November 1570, a post he held till at least 1578. He was offered the archbishopric of Tuam in 1572, but declined.
Kearney was responsible for providing the first Gaelic type-font, and Brian Ó Cuív (qv) has noted that the design of individual letters indicates a ‘familiarity with Irish scribal practices on the part of the designer’ (Ó Cuív (ed.), Aibidil, 4). The font he produced was paid for from state funds, and Kearney recorded that he worked for a long time on perfecting it. It was used in 1571 for his Irish catechism, printed in Dublin at the expense of John Ussher (qv), alderman. The name of the printer is unknown but Kearney himself would have been very closely involved in the production process. Kearney's font was also used in the same year to print a ballad by Pilib Bocht Ó hUiginn (qv), perhaps as a test piece.
Kearney's best known work, the Aibidil Gaoidheilge & caiticiosma, now exceedingly rare, is a book of fifty-five pages, stated to have been translated from Latin and English into Irish. It opens with an epistle to the reader, which makes reference to an earlier version of the catechism, prepared in 1563. No work of Kearney's from 1563 survives, and it has been suggested that a preliminary translation of the catechism may have circulated in manuscript form (Williams, 24). The epistle is followed by an ‘alphabet’ which provides guidance on the letters and sounds of the Irish language. This was intended to make the catechism useful to ministers who lacked a detailed knowledge of the Irish language. The central portion of the book containing a question and answer catechism is derived from the Book of Common Prayer. Here, Kearney appears to have used the 1559 English edition. This section is followed by ten prayers in Irish, some of which are very similar to those printed in John Carswell's Foirm na nVrrnvidheadh agus freasdal na sacramuinteadh (1567). The work concludes with an Irish translation of ‘A brief declaration of certeine pryncipall articles of relygion’ which had been issued by the ecclesiastical authorities in Dublin in 1566.
Kearney's Aibidil was intended as a primer of religion, a collection of key texts that could be used by ministers to promote protestant doctrine among an Irish-speaking population. Following the successful publication of this book, of which at least 200 copies were printed, Kearney continued to work on making other texts available in Irish. Notably, he was involved in translating the New Testament into Irish, his contribution being acknowledged by Uilliam Ó Domhnuill (William Daniel (qv)) in 1602. However, it seems that he had died long before the full translation was ready for publication. In October 1587 the English privy council referred to ‘J. Carney, deceased’ as one of the translators of the New Testament (Acts of the privy council of England, new series, 1587–8, 201). Thus, the statement of Sir James Ware (qv) that Kearney died c.1600 appears to be incorrect.