• Coolattin, County Wicklow Gathering, Sept. 2013

I was asked to give a talk in Coolattin, County Wicklow, on Set. 13-15 gathering event.  This was a spectacular even featuring many talks on how life was like in the mid 1800’s at the time that the Earl Fitzwilliam was evicting 6000 of his poorest tenants from his land.

Here is my talk:

Copyright Sept 15, 2013 

A lot of people think of Family History as spending thousands of hours researching on the internet, digging through church records, photo’s, censuses, public records, Griffith’s Valuations and drudging through cemeteries.   Pause…Well, it is….. but I also try to take the “Family” from Family History and concentrate on that……, bridging generations, by getting to know the stories of who came before us.

I want to talk a bit about my Kenny family, where – and how they lived – and how I found them here in Ireland,- and those that emigrated to Canada, – but first I need to set the stage of what life was like then, because Ireland underwent major highs and lows during the 19th century; from economic booms during the Napoleonic Wars, to the severe financial downturns with a series of famines, the worst of these was the Great Irish Famine (1845–49).

It was September 1845 when a strange disease struck the potatoes as they grew in fields across Ireland.

Many of the plants were found to have gone black and rotten and their leaves had withered.  The fields had a terrible stench.

In the harvest that year, between one-third and one half of the crop was destroyed by the strange disease, which became known as ‘potato blight’. It was not possible to eat the blighted potatoes, and the rest of 1845 was a period of hardship, although not starvation, for those who depended on it. The price of potatoes more than doubled over the winter: a hundredweight [50 kilos] rose in price from 16 pence to 36 pence.

One a side note, It is now known that the same potato blight struck in the USA in 1843 and 44 and in Canada in 1844, but it affected the Irish people who heavily relied on this crop, much worse.

The following spring, the Kenny’s and other Irish, planted even more potatoes. The farmers thought that the blight was a just a “one-off”, and that they would not have to suffer the same hardship in the next winter.

However, by the time harvest had come in the fall of 1846, almost the entire crop had been wiped out.

In 1847, the harvest improved somewhat and the potato crop was partially successful. However, there was a relapse in 1848 and 49 causing a second period of famine.

In this period, disease was spreading which in the end, killed more people than starvation did. The worst period of disease was 1849 when Cholera was at its worst. The biggest group affected was the very young and very old.

In 1850 the harvest was better and after that the blight never struck on the same scale again.  Although County Wicklow was not as hard hit as many of the other Counties, much hardship and disease occurred stemmed from these circumstances.

I would like to talk specifically about a man who lived during these turbulent years named Thomas Kenny. (SHOW Picture)

Thomas was born in 1794 in Kilcavan, County Wicklow, to Bartholomew Kenny and Ann Breen Kenny.

In 1808 when the Kennys were able to get their own leases from the Fitzwilliam’s, it showed on Bartholomew lease that his son, Thomas, was named as “In the Life of” on this lease, which this term helped secure the land longer for the tenants.

On a side note, this portion of Kilcavan was named Kennystown, in 1808, because of the concentration of Kenny families residing in this area.

But something went wrong in Thomas’ life.   For some reason, Thomas was not mentioned in any of the area records after 1808, not until 1839, almost 31 years later, when he shows up living as a laborer on a nearby Farm across the road from Kennystown, in Motabower, with the Robert Roche family, and being recorded as having- No Land.  Then again in 1845, on the land of Robert Connors farm this time, in his owns house and yard, but no farm, and still in a laborers status.

Why Thomas lost his rights to farm in Kennystown with his brothers remains a mystery.  I can speculate that he was a “Black Sheep” to the Kennys, maybe because he left them when being needed, or because he married a much younger wife, he being 43, his bride Ellen Purcell being 23, or  maybe, he just didn’t want to farm, but as 1851 approached, Thomas was struggling greatly. Hardship was in full swing.  His situation was dire.  At this point, Thomas and Ellen had five children ranging in ages 7-2. They were Bartholomew, James, Richard, Edward and Anne.  (SHOW Picture)

The Earl Fitzwilliam was evicting the poorest of his tenants from his land for a few years now, some volunteering, some not.

Many of the tenants were in arrears; records even showed that the Kennys in Kennystown were grossly behind in their rents.

The Fitzwilliam’s and other Land owners were hit hard with taxes that were needed to feed the poor, so large scale evictions, known as “clearances” of “uneconomic” tenants began to take place from these estates to reduce costs.

The vast majority of landlords simply turned out the tenants to fend for themselves, adding to the turmoil the poor were feeling. Lord Fitzwilliam instead, offered assisted emigration” to almost 6000 of the “surplus” tenants that he wished to be rid of.  The clearance ran from 1847 to 56 and in that time, 5,995 surplus people sailed to Canada, which for the most part, Fitzwilliam, flipping the bill.

Thomas was one that did emigrate with his family of seven, leaving with the Connor and the Roche family families that he had previously lived with.

Pause …..Now, imagine if you can, what it would take…. for you to uproot yourself from your family, your friends, your church, your culture, your country, even your native language.  Imagine… leaving your home and possessions, and moving an ocean away to a place you’ve never been, abandoning everything familiar.

You would be tearing up your roots and starting all over based on faith in stories you may have heard from friends and family that have left the Kilcavan area before you, like the Balfes , Kinsella’s, Free’s, Cahill’s, Hendrix, Dobb’s, Kehoe’s,  Kavanaghs’ and the Byrnes.

For most of us? .. this is an inconceivable thought, but, for many of our ancestors, including Thomas and his family, this was their reality.

The Kenny’s would have taken the long walk of 55 kilometers, to New Ross, with one chest to store their families’ meager belongings.  Once in New Ross, they would board their immigrant ship, called the Glenlyon, leaving port on April 15th, 1851.

The conditions of these boats for the steerage passengers would have been deplorable, each given a 6’x6’ section for their family to inhabit for those 45 days with limited access to proper toilets and the upper decks.

Packed in below decks, the steerage passengers barely saw the light of day. Allowed up on deck for no more than one hour a day, in small groups, they would gather around open stoves to cook. When their time was up, it was back down into the dark, dank hold. During the storms that regularly happened, the hatches were latched down, and the passengers would resort to hard biscuits for their families to eat.  Pause…

I just can’t fathom being in such close quarters with the hatches closed during choppy weather with the sickness all around me.

Hygiene was very poor aboard most ships. With nothing more than buckets for toilets, and only sea-water to wash with, disease was rampant. Cholera and Typhus accounted for a great many deaths. Those who died were buried at sea. With death rates commonly reaching 20%, and horror stories of 50% dying, these vessels soon became known as ‘Coffin Ships’.  Fortunately, the ship that Thomas and his family were on, only 5 died at sea, out of 469 passengers.

The shipping company that the Fitzwilliam’s used had a great reputation and was owned by William Graves (born in 1815-dying in 1856).  He was from New Ross County Wexford.

The Graves Immigrant Ships had a surprisingly low mortality rate. The Grave Brothers would typically ship immigrants from Ireland and bring back timber, on their return.

After weeks cooped up in these terrible conditions, the Kennys arrived in North America. They were filthy, penniless, and illiterate;

After their quarantine period in Quebec, the Kennys headed straight to Smiths Falls, Ontario where Thomas’ sister Sally Balfe and her family already resided.

Thomas and Ellen had two more girls in Smiths Falls, Mary and Ellen, with a total of seven children.

Thomas died in Smiths Falls, almost exactly 10 years later, on July 15, 1861, at the age of 67.

One of his children, who was with them on the journey to Canada, was Richard. (SHOW Picture)  He would have been 5 years old at the time of their emigration.

Richard grew up in Smiths Falls and when he was 22, he left Canada with many of his siblings and they moved to Door County, Wisconsin.  This is where five from this Kenny family settled and farmed.

The Great Fire of 1871, the same fire that destroyed much of Chicago, also burned in this part of Wisconsin.  Richard and his brother Bartholomew lost most everything, including their farm, crops and buildings.

Richard packed up what was left, moved to Carroll County Iowa, where he continued to farm with his father in law, Edward Lovely. In 1890, Richard, now aged 44, and his family moved to Omaha, NE, where I am a sixth generation Kenny from Omaha.

You might ask,: ‘How did I find my family here in Ireland, with such sketchy records available’?

The short answer is partly to Jim Rees’ research; but the full answer is as follows;

I knew from an elderly relative, that the Kennys came from “somewhere in Ireland”, and from Ireland moved to Smiths Falls, Ontario.  My research began in 1988, prior to the days of having Internet, to find out where that– “somewhere in Ireland” was, so I went to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, (Mormon Church) to their Family History Library, and ordered church records from Smiths Falls.  It was in the St. Francis de Salle records that I found a wealth of information, and first learned of Thomas, his wife and children, and the Balfe Family, which I later would find to be Thomas’ sister. Keep in mind that the Smiths Falls records gave me two full generations that I never knew about when I discovered, for the first time, Thomas.. his family.

In these records, I also found that Sally Kenny Balfe was married to Thomas Balfe in Kennystown, County Wicklow on Nov 3, 1831.(my birthday being Nov. 3rd, btw) After seeing the word “Kennystown”, I studied carefully in this area to find a large group of Kenny families there.

I hired Catherine Wright in the Genealogy Department from County Wicklow’ s Historical Society and she was able to find some birth records of Bartholomew and Anne Kenny’s children of Kilcavan, where there was a Thomas Kenny as a child being born in 1794 and a brother and sister also, Richard and Catherine. I continued praying …and piecing my research together for many years.

When the internet became available, I found message boards very useful. (Still do).

It was on message boards that I met a fellow researcher of Kilcavan and Kennystown who presently lives in Ottawa, her name being Anne Burgess.  Anne, researching the Dobbs and Balfe Families, and myself researching the Kenny and Balfes.

We had been sharing information back and forth for years, when Anne discovered the Fitzwilliam Tenant CD (SHOW CD) produced from Jim Rees’ work. It was here, that I confirmed that the Thomas Kenny that I found in Ontario was for sure, from this area and learned of his emigration status, listing his emigration in the Fitzwilliam’s books as ID # 662, Ref #59

From here, both Anne and I each hired a researcher named John Sean O’Neill from Dublin to search the records in your National Library, which he was able to access the civil and church records, and the Fitzwilliam records, which were very well kept and recorded, I might mention.  Everything just started to fall together.

In 2004, the same year I launched my genealogy and information of this area on Kennytree.com, both my sister Susan and I, separately, planned a trip to Ireland, which were about 2 months apart from each other.

With Susan and her husband coming here first, I asked her to try to make it to Carnew and look for Kennystown and armed her with an Outline Descendant Report of names that were put together.

As she drove into Carnew, she came across the “Kenny’s Pint Depot”, just inside town on the Carnew/Gorey Road and met Mrs. Kenny, the matriarch of the family living there now.

Mrs. Kenny straight away, recognized the family names as her family (The rest is history)

From this research, our Kenny’s from the States were able to unite with our family here in Ireland.

In 2010, we had a Kenny family reunion in Omaha in which some of these family members from Ireland were able to attend.

Could all the family members please stand?

Thank you.

In Closing, I will just say, Family Research takes a good amount of dedication. “It was worth the work to find these wonderful people”.  Family is so important to me, through my faith and from my friendships that I have made along the way.

Thank you.

Does anyone have any questions that I might be able to answer?

It has been a true pleasure.