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A Stormy Petrel: The Life and Times of John Pope Hennessy

He served queen and empire, but his Irishness and Catholicism were always to the fore

A Stormy Petrel: the Life and Times of John Pope Hennessy
A Stormy Petrel: the Life and Times of John Pope Hennessy
Author: P Kevin MacKeown
ISBN-13: 9789629373771
Publisher: City University of Hong Kong Press
Guideline Price: €26.2

The Stormy Petrel here is Sir John Pope Hennessy (1834-91). He was the enfant terrible of the 19th-century British colonial service and one of the most remarkable Irishmen of the whole period.

This dapper dilettante with the gift of the gab was small in stature but never short of ego. He was twice an MP at Westminister, and governor of Labuan (in Borneo), West Africa, The Bahamas, the Windward Islands, Hong Kong and Mauritius. Hennessy caused havoc in all of these far-flung places, falling out with officials and colonial elites alike. He courted popular appeal introducing important pro-native reforms.

Often quite irascible and always ambitious, he never ceased to be a bundle of contradictions and hypocrisies. He served queen and empire but his Irishness and Catholicism were always to the fore as if he had never left Cork.

MacKeown tends to see Sir John as an opportunist, whose humanitarian record was a by-product of the situations in which he found himself and of a character formed from the vicissitudes of Irish history. His book nicely catches the spirit of the early days of Queen’s College Cork, with the confident son of a local hide-merchant writing papers on science and mathematics until heading to London to switch to law and ultimately politics. There he made important contacts in Disraeli’s circle and talked his way into running for and winning a seat for the Tories in King’s County.


Hennessy was an immediate hit in parliament, being a frequent speaker on a whole range of issues and seemed destined for great office. As well as defending the propertied interest, he condemned colonial scandals in India and elsewhere and espoused nationalist agitations, especially the cause of Polish freedom. However, his enthusiastic public support for the Vatican, albeit in its struggles with Revolutionary Italy, lost him the vital votes of Orange landlords.

Going to law to dispute the close election coupled with arrangements for two illegitimate children, kept secret for the rest of his career, landed him in debt. The Conservative Party bailed him out with a job in the tropics – a coaling station in South China Sea from which he worked his way up. There in Labuan he married the part-Malay Kitty Low, who converted to Catholicism.

He had big fall-outs with lesser officials when he and Kitty had public encounters with those who refused to hide their native mistresses. Their first son died in infancy after he brought him against advice to West Africa where he died within days. His umbrella-wielding attack on an English QC in Hong Kong whom he accused of making indecent advances on his wife led to his eventual sacking from the colony.

Everywhere he went he introduced prison reform and abolished flogging. He ignored racial categories by appointing locals to jobs and into government. He reduced taxes on the ordinary population that stored up financial troubles for his successors. He admired the energy and entrepreneurship of the Chinese and advocated a university for the natives of West Africa impressed by the heritage of Islamic learning in the region.

He annoyed the Anglo-Protestant establishments in all of his postings and his advocacy of temperance in the vein of Father Mathew did not help either. His reform proposals in Barbados caused riots and he was accused afterwards of causing the Third Anglo-Ashanti War in Africa. He went on solo diplomatic runs into China and especially Japan, areas that were really none of his business. Why the Colonial Office kept giving him new jobs can only be that his bullying, blunderbuss tactics were important in breaking vested interests in an age of free trade imperialism. The tension was ratcheted up with every new appointment as his reputation for confrontation and trouble preceded him.

In office Sir John’s Irishness went far beyond celebration of St Patrick’s Day events. Where possible he appointed Irish Catholics and showed preference for Irish regiments and Irish policemen. In 1880 he organised a relief fund in Hong Kong for the mini famine then distressing Ireland. It reached a crescendo on the French-speaking island of Mauritius, which was referred to during his governorship 1883-89 as La Petite Irlande.

Apart from English officials and clergy, he proved popular with all sections on the island – French planters, the francophone descendants of African slaves, Indian indentured labourers and Chinese shopkeepers. His main purpose there was to introduce a representative element in government albeit on a limited franchise. He regarded himself as bringing Home Rule to Mauritius and proclaimed “Maurice pour les Mauriciens”.

Unfortunately the politics of his native country overlapped when anti-Land Leaguer Clifford Lloyd was appointed his deputy. Chaos reigned after the first elections and government was at a standstill. Lloyd was removed to the Seychelles and Hennessy himself ordered back to London pending an investigation. Eventually exonerated, he went back for a final, almost festive, year on the island.

Hennessy never got an Australian governorship, though he had often lobbied for one. He now returned home to Co Cork where by now he was the proud and symbolic owner of Rostellan Castle on the shores of the Outer Harbour and Raleigh’s house at Myrtle Grove in Youghal. He stood for the Home Rule Party in the North Kilkenny by-election, morphing into the successful Anti-Parnellite candidate when the Chief’s affair and children with Kitty O’Shea were exposed.

This Catholic, conservative reformer, imperial home-ruler died the same day as Parnell. His career reflected many of the ambiguities about Ireland’s relationship with the British Empire in the post-famine period. He is now better remembered in some of the colonies he ruled than in Cork which has rued him.

MacKeown's biography is a fine attempt to explain a complex figure – altogether more comprehensive and more critical than the episodic Verandah published by his professional-writer grandson, James Pope Hennessy, in 1964.

Hiram Morgan teaches history in University College Cork