Hill farmer who never left Ireland but featured in array of international pictorials

Pictures of Michael Kenneally travelled the world


Michael Kenneally was a Co Clare hill farmer who lived all his 82 years at the foot of Mount Callan, overlooking the road from Inagh to Miltown-Malbay. He rarely left Co Clare, and never left Ireland. He never owned a car. Yet, through a series of chance encounters, and his own charm, he enjoyed an unusual and joyous relationship with the media that spanned more than half a century.

Kenneally was 24 when the great American photographer Dorothea Lange saw him working in his fields and drew up to the cottage he shared with his mother, Nora. Lange had been inspired by Conrad Arensberg ’s book The Irish Countryman , which described an intact rural society where the people and their culture were rooted in the land. Michael was the seventh generation of Kenneally to farm their 70 acres, and in his warmth and rugged handsomeness Lange found her Irish countryman.

Of the 2,400 photographs taken on Lange’s trip to Ireland, Michael Kenneally appears more than any other person. He featured in Lange’s photoessay that appeared in Life magazine in March 1955. At the time, Life was the biggest-selling publication in the world.

Kenneally married his childhood sweetheart Bridie McMahon in 1959. They set up home in the Kenneally cottage, and ensured it retained its reputation as a welcoming place for family, neighbours and strangers.

Kenneally was the embodiment of the Ireland we like to sell to our tourists. Although Ireland changed much in his lifetime, Kenneally and the life around him in west Clare didn’t. It was those qualities that seemed to draw photographers and other visitors to him.

In 1990, New York photographer Pat Crowe came across Kenneally wearing a “‘scarecrow’ type of a hat and walking along the road carrying a bucket of water”. His photos of Kenneally became part of a cover story in Aer Lingus ’s Cara magazine.

In 1991, when 75 of the world’s leading photojournalists descended on Ireland for the Day In The Life project, it seemed inevitable that one would find her way to Kenneally’s home. Stephanie Maze from National Geographic was the photographer, and although her shots of the Keaneallys didn’t appear in the book, they were prominent in the documentary film made about that day.

In 1994, Gerry Mullins began researching the photographs taken by Lange on her 1954 trip. His book Dorothea Lange’s Ireland opened with shots of the Keneallys, and it became a bestseller.

This prompted the arrival of many photographers and journalists to Kenneally’s door, eager to retrace Lange’s footsteps. Subsequent articles appeared in Irish, British and American publications.

The book also led to the documentary film Photos to Send produced by Deirdre Lynch, which traced the lives of those who were in Lange’s photos. The film opens with Kenneally digging turf from the bog near his house, and moves to a hilarious scene in their kitchen where Bridie and Mick finish each other’s sentences and gently tease each other. This endearing scene helped the film win 10 awards in film festivals around the world.

In 2005, Dorothea Lange’s son Daniel Dixon came to Ireland to give a series of talks about his mother. He had been her driver and researcher on the 1954 trip, and wanted to return to the Kenneally home for the first and last time. The two old men embraced at the top of Kenneally’s long driveway and the scene was broadcast on RTÉ ’s Nationwide programme the following week.

In 2006, Turtle Bunbury and James Fennell published Vanishing Ireland , the first in their series of bestselling books that took “us back to an Ireland virtually unrecognisable to today’s post-boom generation”. They gave Michael Kenneally’s life story and photographs a three-page spread.

And only last year, a new documentary on the life of Dorothea Lange called Child of Giants was screened across the US and Ireland, prompting another wave of articles about Michael Kenneally. However, by now an array of ailments were ganging up on the octogenarian, and he was unable to attend the screening at the nearby Burren College of Art.

He is survived by Bridie, his wife of 53 years, their three sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren.