McEnery, John (1796–1841), palaeontologist and catholic priest, was born 17 November 1796 in Limerick city. Educated at St Munchin's seminary, Park House, near Limerick city, he was ordained in 1819 for the diocese of Limerick. Soon thereafter, pursuant to his participation in a protest at an irregularity in a church appointment, he moved to England, where he acted as vicar apostolic to the western district, and in 1822 was made chaplain to the Cary family in Torquay, south Devon.
In 1825 he visited Kent's Cavern in the limestone near Torquay, and that day uncovered the tooth of a sabre-toothed tiger (Machairodos latidens), the first evidence in Britain of this animal. He then undertook systematic excavations on the site over the following four years until meeting with a serious underground accident (1829). By this time he had found the bones of more extinct animals, including mammoth (Elephas primigenius), and had discovered what was likely a human workshop with stone chippings and flint implements. Charred bones of the pleistocene animals in the same stratum led him to deduce the contemporaneous presence of humans and, therefore, the first presumption of a palaeolithic people. Although McEnery was elected (1827) a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (London), contemporary scholars such as William Buckland (1784–1856) – reader in geology and later fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford – and figures in the church were reluctant to accept the antiquity of the human presence to which his findings pointed. An appeal in 1828 for subscriptions to publish his findings failed (prospectus in Natural History Museum, Torquay); apart from a short illustrated account (Teeth and bones found in Kent's Hole near Torquay, Devon . . . October 1825), they were not published in his lifetime. He gained recognition in France, where he stayed and collected specimens (1830–31 and 1834–8), attracted there, no doubt, by discoveries similar to his own. In 1837 he was elected to the Société Géologique de France, and he is mentioned in de Blainville's Ostéographie (3 vols., 1841–55). He presented specimens to the Jardin des Plantes, Paris, and to museums in Bristol, London, and York. He does not appear ever to have revisited Ireland. After declining in health from May 1840, he died 18 February 1841 in Devon, where he was buried in the Old Churchyard, Torre.
After McEnery's death, his large, important fossil collection was dispersed, with items going to the British Museum, the Oxford Museums, the Royal Geographical Society, and the Royal College of Surgeons; several of the artifacts are now in the British Museum. In 1845 excavations by Torquay Natural History Society substantiated McEnery's theory that humans and extinct pleistocene animals had co-existed. McEnery's excavation report, however, lay dormant in private hands for some years until it was read by Edmund Vivian, who made it the basis of his 1856 paper to the British Association; Vivian's account of the Kent's Cavern investigation with some of the original plates was published in the Report of the British Association of that year. In 1858, Joseph Prestwich in Memoirs to the Royal Society (London) paid due credit to McEnery for his deductions. McEnery's manuscripts were presented (1867) to Torquay Natural History Society and, edited by William Pengelly, published in several parts in Transactions of the Devonshire Association (1867–78). These publications revealed the advanced methodology of McEnery's excavation techniques (for example, in precisely recording find spots and dates), his understanding of stratigraphy and association of objects, and his detailed labelling of specimens. His foresight in leaving part of the deposit unexcavated for future scientists enabled a British Association re-examination (1870–77) of Kent's Cavern by Pengelly, which confirmed McEnery's findings and disclosed more finds.