Holywood, and Kilrush, Co Clare


CONNECTIONS:No, that is not a misspell or a typo, I am here referring to the single-L Holywood of County Down, not the double-L one in California. So lets have a look at the connections between that town and Kilrush, writes Conan Kennedy

 And yes, of course there may be many, though none apart from this man portrayed here are immediately apparent. Holywood, Co Down, is the quintessential uppercrust Unionist location. No-one on the street looks like they have ever posted an envelope into a letterbox that wasnt painted red. Whereas in Co Clare's Kilrush? Different demographic.

This man is, as mentioned, my connection between the towns. And who is he?

He is Captain Arthur Edward Kennedy (1810-1883) of Cultra, Co Down. His birthplace, Cultra, is now the site of the heritage and folk park of that name. He was scion of the Scottish Kennedy family, who settled there from Ayrshire in the 17th century. These Kennedys were, and indeed still are, the Earls of Cassilis, their family seat being the Castle of Culzean, now a major National Trust for Scotland property.

The family claims kinship with the family of Bruce (no harm in claiming!). But they are definitely well connected in Scottish history, one of their number, James Kennedy, having married the daughter of King Robert III in 1407. From then on they are well recorded in the lively doings of Scottish and English history. The words "murder", "poison" and "torture" seem to crop up a lot in the historical records of the family. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it appears to be generally accepted that, in antiquity, the family were originally Irish. Though those were times when, of course, the concepts of "Ireland" and "Scotland" were not at all well defined.

Whatever about all that, there is bad news in this for many.

Irish Americans should perhaps avoid reading the following paragraph.

In the early 1700s a John Kennedy of this Scottish Cultra family moved to Waterford and set himself up as a landlords' agent or as what was known as a "middleman", a type of landlord in his own right. His brothers Morgan and Brien followed along and, it seems, a great number of the Kennedys of the south-east counties of Wexford and Waterford are descended from this family. These descendants appear to include two important people, the late US president John F Kennedy and, ahem, this writer.

This very inappropriate fact is probably why the late President Kennedy's genealogists have perpetually produced a pretty vague analysis of his forebears. The reality is most likely that, rather than being descended from a bunch of politically useful Irish peasants, JFK was actually descended from ruthless foreign landlords' agents and middlemen, themselves descended from Scottish aristocracy. Oh dear. But the world still turns. Back to our man above.

Arthur Kennedy studied in TCD, became a soldier, serving in Corfu and Canada. He returned to Ireland and became a Civil Servant, working for the Poor Law Commission. He was to be in charge of the Kilrush Union at the height of the Famine in 1847. His work on behalf of the poor and starving was renowned, and led him into conflict with the local landlords, whom he hated to the extent that he challenged the leading one of their number, Crofton Moore Vandeleur, to a duel.

Relationships between Kennedy and the landlords and the local officials went from bad to worse and Kennedy was eventually transferred by the authorities, following representations from Vandeleur and his cronies. Huge crowds gathered to see him off. (One of the iconic images of the Famine, which appeared in the Illustrated London News, depicts Kennedy's daughter distributing clothes to the afflicted). And so off he went to the British Diplomatic Service. A long career included the governorships of both Gambia and Sierra Leone.

In 1855 he was appointed Governor of Western Australia, and was in charge of much of the development of Perth. In Australia he was regarded as "a tough man", which in the Australia of those days meant something. Tough though he was, it is recorded that in 1858 he sent funds to Father Moran of Kilrush for the poor of that parish. In 1863 he moved to Vancouver, thence Hong Kong, returning to Australia in 1877 as Governor of Queensland. He died on board ship while returning to Europe in 1883.

Those of us who find ourselves in modern Perth in Western Australia will note numerous monuments and place names dedicated to his memory. He was a well-thought-of man. There is a memorial window to him in the Church (of Ireland) in Holywood, CoDown. Far away in Kilrush, Co Clare, there is a plaque to his memory at the site of the Old Workhouse at St Patrick's Terrace.

It is good that, that connection. Not easy for the one man to be honoured equally in the heartlands of both our Irish tribes. Oh yes, if he's a Nelson Mandela or some other distinguished world figure we will honour him everywhere with gusto. Just so long as he's foreign. With our own people we tend to be rather more careful.

• Conan Kennedy is a writer whose most recent books include the novel Ogulla Well, and (as editor) the recently published five-volume edition of The Diaries of Mary Hayden