MacKenna, Kathleen Napoli (1897–1988), republican and administrator, was born Kathleen Maria Kenna in Oldcastle, Co. Meath, eldest of seven children (four daughters and three sons) of William Kenna (1862–1939), draper and hardware merchant, and his wife Mary. MacKenna added the 'Mac' to her name as a teenager; her parents and most of her siblings continued to call themselves 'Kenna'. Agnes O'Farrelly (qv) was an aunt of William Kenna and hired an Irish-speaking nurse in Spiddal, Co. Galway, for the Kenna children; a grand-uncle of Kathleen, a priest (probably Fr Matthew Mallory (1810–92) of Tullamore), allegedly smuggled a suit of civilian clothes into Tullamore jail for William O'Brien (qv) who was refusing to wear prison dress during his imprisonment there in 1888.
William Kenna had been active in the Land League and was a member of the Meath Labour Union. Both parents were Gaelic Leaguers and 'had learned from their parents of the hardships of the famine, the plague and the many sufferings wrought by British misrule in Ireland' (Capuchin Annual (1970), 641). William Kenna was part of a circle of local Irish Irelanders who in 1902 founded a short-lived local paper called Sinn Féin – Oldcastle Monthly Review. Regular visitors to the house included Arthur Griffith (qv) and Brian O'Higgins (qv), who 'coached my brother and myself to sing at the Navan feis, one of his own compositions in which our love of our native land and hatred of Britain were expressed' (MacKenna, 504).
It is not clear where MacKenna received her secondary education, though her recollections reveal her as a confident, educated young woman and – most importantly – an expert typist. In her reminiscences she speaks of attending 'college' in Dublin; this might suggest she attended UCD but her name cannot be found in NUI records and it is possible she is referring to a secondary school (often described as a college in the period). She was a member of the Dublin-based Parnell branch of the Gaelic League. While visiting Dublin on summer holidays in 1919 she presented herself at the Sinn Féin offices in Harcourt Street with a letter of introduction from her father to Griffith, emphasising her desire to assist in the national struggle. She was set to work in the Sinn Féin press bureau for the duration of her holidays (she was proud to recall that she had been one of the first 'dáil girls' employed by the underground government) and told that if a projected news bulletin came to fruition she would be summoned to work on it. The summons came in October 1919, and after a brief typing test on 11 November 1919 she was set to work on the Irish Bulletin under the direction of Desmond FitzGerald (qv) as minister for propaganda and Robert Brennan (qv) as director of publicity. 'I felt elated and, with emotion, realised that now, I, too, had my place in the serried ranks of Ireland's soldiers' (Ir. Times, 24 December 1979).
The Irish Bulletin, published from the clandestine offices of the dáil propaganda department, was a twice-weekly news-sheet circulated by post to a list of sympathetic opinion formers (mostly journalists and opposition politicians in Britain), often drawing on government communications captured by the IRA and sworn affidavits by victims of crown forces. Partly because of its intended audience, it was more inclined to publicise governmental misdeeds than to celebrate IRA activities in the manner of An t-Óglach (another underground publication, produced by the dáil Ministry of Defence). A weekly list of 'acts of aggression' committed by the British forces in Ireland was compiled from newspaper reports by Anna Fitzssimons (latterly, Anna Kelly (qv)) in the same office, and edited and mimeographed by MacKenna (sometimes at her lodgings in Belvedere Road on the north side of the city). Most of the actual writing was done by Frank Gallagher (qv) subject to the editorial correction of FitzGerald (later replaced by Erskine Childers (qv)).
MacKenna is sometime described as editor of the Irish Bulletin, but might more accurately be described as an editorial assistant. (FitzGerald called her his 'right hand' and in 1947 R. M. Smyllie (qv) recalled that her role in the propaganda department had brought her into regular contact with the media.) Her principal task was to type out each issue on a wax stencil inserted in a typewriter (this required particular skill since mistakes could not be corrected and meant discarding the stencil); the stencil was then used to print off mimeographed copies on a duplicator, after which the copies were posted by secretaries and boy messengers under MacKenna's supervision in small batches around the city to forwarding addresses in England. At first the mailing list had only about thirty names (the core group being journalists cultivated by FitzGerald through his London literary contacts); by October 1920 there were some 600 recipients, and over 1,200 at the time of the truce in July 1921. MacKenna also took dictation on important statements (such as policy declarations by Griffith and accounts of ill treatment in prison by such figures as Ernie O'Malley (qv)), sometimes worked up articles from notes supplied by FitzGerald and other superiors, and acted as a confidential messenger between dáil departments and for IRA leaders (including Michael Collins (qv)). This work brought her into contact with the nationalist hostess Moya Llewellyn Davies (1881–1942), whose sophistication greatly impressed her.
The Irish Bulletin emphasised accuracy and authenticated source material (with Gallagher's imaginative propensities kept on a tight editorial rein), and was widely cited by British journalistic and political opponents of the Lloyd George government's policy in Ireland and used for propaganda purposes by dáil representatives abroad, while the British government denounced it as the propaganda of a murder gang. As the guerrilla war and government reprisals intensified, the Bulletin became a particular target for the security forces, while its continued appearance was a symbol of the continued functioning of the underground administration; MacKenna's reminiscences record its constant moves from one Dublin hideout to another, her own increasing awareness of the ruthlessness with which the war was being fought on both sides, and her fear that if captured she might break under the sort of tortures recorded in the Bulletin. (After the arrest of FitzGerald, MacKenna was told that he had been asked about 'the girl wearing a green tam' (tam-o'-shanter hat) and promptly changed her headgear.) 'I was frank and ingenuous, guided solely by an instinct of self-preservation and a resolution not to fail those who had faith in me. Arthur Griffith had praised me to Mr FitzGerald saying I was the most reliable person he had ever known, and that was an opinion I had to continue to merit. Besides my all-absorbing work gave me all the satisfaction for which my heart had ever yearned' (MacKenna, 514).
Although several staff members were captured at one time or another, and the Bulletin's office equipment and files (then located in an office on Molesworth Street, chosen for its general loyalist atmosphere) were captured on 26 March 1921 and used for some time to produce a rival Bulletin as a form of black propaganda, the paper appeared until the truce without missing an issue.
MacKenna's younger sister Winifred also did secretarial work for the underground dáil government (Fine Arts Department) during this period while her brother Tadhg (Timothy) was active in the IRA in Greenore, Co. Louth; in March 1921 he was captured, beaten up, and interned.
At the truce, MacKenna was reassigned to the secretarial staff of the dáil cabinet at the Mansion House, while continuing to work for the propaganda department. In October 1921 she accompanied the Irish delegation to the treaty negotiations as Griffith's private secretary (one of four secretarial assistants).
MacKenna's personal admiration for Griffith (whom she regarded almost as a father figure, noting that his long experience of privation for the cause made him seem older than he actually was) and Collins (whom she compared in retrospect to Richard Wagner's Siegfried as an image of heroic, doomed youth) underlay her support for the Anglo–Irish treaty. In later writings she recalled with sadness the political alienation this brought from former colleagues; at one point she shared a railway carriage with Anna Kelly during a long journey, neither daring to speak for fear of a rebuff.
On the establishment of the Free State government, MacKenna became private secretary to successive ministers for external affairs (including FitzGerald, Kevin O'Higgins (qv), and W. T. Cosgrave (qv) when he was acting minister after the death of O'Higgins). She was a private secretary to the boundary commission in 1924, one of two secretaries to the Irish delegation to the imperial conference in London in 1926, and secretary (1927–31) to James Dolan (qv), parliamentary secretary to the minister for industry and commerce. She wrote articles for the Freeman's Journal at some time prior to its closure in 1924.
In 1931 MacKenna married Vittorio Napoli, a captain (later a general) in the Italian royal grenadier guards. She spent the first years of her marriage in the port of Derna in Cyrenaica (eastern Libya, then an Italian colony) where her husband was stationed, and there her two children (a son and a daughter) were born. After the second world war she recalled that in 'pre-war days, when Mussolini was a great Italian and had not yet become corrupted with power and lost his terrific driving force her husband surrounded her with servants on 1,300 lira a month they had a pretty home and other property as well in Rome' ([Irish] Times Pictorial, 30 August 1947). Shortly before Italy entered the second world war in 1940, the Napolis were stationed in Albania. After the 1943 Italian armistice with the allies her husband was among the Italian military personnel arrested and deported to Germany as forced labour; Kathleen and her children spent the rest of the war in Viterbo in reduced circumstances. After the war they were reunited with Vittorio Napoli, but were severely affected by inflation; in 1947 she lamented that 'on something like 33,000 lira [army salary], they hardly do more than make ends meet, and the income from the property, about 300 lira a month, will buy no more than a packet and a half of cigarettes Italians have been eating maize a good deal in the absence of flour, the prices are skyhigh for everything, thanks, she thinks, to the racketeers, who are making life as arduous as possible for the middle classes' (ibid., 30 August 1947).
Kathleen helped to support the family by contributing to several Irish and American publications (including the Irish Times) under the pen name 'Kayn MacKay' on Rome and on Irish connections with Rome. At some point she applied for an Irish military pension, and received supportive references from Gallagher despite their political differences. Although the Napoli family's circumstances later improved, she continued to write for Irish, American and New Zealand publications, including the Irish Independent, the Irish Press, Irish Travel, the Standard, the Word, and Writer's Digest; she was an occasional contributor to the Irish Independent under her own name as late as 1975. The Napolis also continued to make regular visits to Ireland, and in the 1960s holidayed from time to time in Sardinia.
As she grew older, MacKenna grew increasingly concerned to place her experiences on record in order to educate future Irish generations about the independence struggle. In 1951 she gave two talks on Radio Éireann about her experiences on the Irish Bulletin (copies were deposited with the Bureau for Military History). In 1970 she published a lengthy account of her Irish Bulletin experiences in the Capuchin Annual, and in December 1979 the Irish Times published two extracts from a longer memoir. This has never been published in full, although it was available to the journalist-historian Tim Pat Coogan, who quotes it in his 1990 life of Collins.
Kathleen Napoli MacKenna died in Rome on 22 March 1988 and was buried with an Irish flag which she had retained all her life. A large body of her papers, much of it concerned with her secretarial work during the treaty negotiations, is in the NLI (MSS 22,494–6; 22,600–26; 22,736–814). Some of her memorabilia were sold at auction in Dublin in 2010 and 2011. In the 1991 RTÉ historical drama The treaty (dir. Jonathan Lewis), MacKenna is played by Rachel Dowling.