Corkman Edward Kenealy was a law unto himself

Corkman Edward Kenealy was a law unto himself
Edward Vaughan Hyde Kenealy.

Corkman Edward Kenealy, a self-declared messenger of God, was disbarred for outlandishness, says Robert Hume.

Edward Vaughan Hyde Kenealy, born in Cork 200 years ago today, was brought up in the city — where his parents owned a shop — and returned there frequently.

Childhood fantasies

“I was born in Nile Street in Cork… in a comfortable, old-fashioned house, of which I now retain no other recollection than that it was covered thickly on the outside with ivy,” he stated in his autobiography.

“I came into the world with my arms crossed over my breast, which made some gossips declare that Heaven destined me to be an archbishop, and I believe one of my aunts predicted I was to be a pope.”

The mist-shrouded castles and abbeys near his grandmother’s house in Mallow “filled me with feudal longings and monastic fancies, of being a chieftain, conqueror, or prior”. As a young man, in order to suggest his descent from a noble family, he began signing his letters “O’Kenealy”.

Flogged at school

Schooldays left him with poignant memories. Mrs Savage, an old lady with silver spectacles and a tall cap, taught him until he was seven. “I was an idle, quiet child, reserved, solitary and silent… as shy as an antelope… I hated restraint of any kind.” A later tutor, Macintosh, “a stagnant, easy, good-for-nothing soul… pocketed his pupils’ money and gave but small concern about their intellectual advancement”.

Dr Porter was a “cruel, heartless pedant” with a “savage delight in inflicting torture”; while Casey, who had a school in Brown St, “regularly flogged me once, and sometimes twice, a day, on hand and naked back”.

Most of his learning was done at home, using his father’s library of English, French, and Italian classics.

Chasing women at 9 years old

Aged just nine, he declared himself “a passionate admirer of female loveliness”. He would make long trips down Glanmire Road to glimpse Miss Baker, “the most beautiful woman then in Cork”.

Of another beauty, a Miss Kellett, “an Empress of Romance”, he recollected: “The moment school was over, I ran to meet her… how passionately I fixed my eyes and heart on that enchanting figure!” Years later, he admitted that when looking for his wife — Elizabeth Nicklin, from Staffordshire, whom he married in 1851 — “I prefer beauty to anything else… Beauty blinds me to other defects…”

Edward Kenealy’s grave in St Helen’s Churchyard, Hangleton, East Sussex, 500 miles from where he was born, in Cork City.
Edward Kenealy’s grave in St Helen’s Churchyard, Hangleton, East Sussex, 500 miles from where he was born, in Cork City.

Law… unto himself

At Trinity College Dublin, he read law and began calling himself doctor. Although he learned to be a “hard-hitting” boxer and to play the violin “excellently”, he denied getting any benefit from his time there.

Contemplates suicide

Dressed in an olive coat and velvet breeches, the small, slight man sailed by steamship from Cork to Bristol in 1838, then took the coach to London, where he enrolled as a student at Gray’s Inn.

The “dry atmosphere” of the metropolis, he quipped, “was so different to the wet, fever-producing temperature of Cork”. Often, he would visit the British Museum, or the House of Commons, but, aside from when O’Connell spoke, was unimpressed by its debates.

Following an impromptu tour of Bavaria, in 1843, he vowed to “strenuously buckle down” to work. His attempt to stand as MP for Cork in 1849 was a dismal failure. Little wonder: he employed no agent, did little canvassing, and offered voters no bribes. The episode unhinged him, and the following year he was sentenced to one month in prison for punishing his six-year-old adopted son with “undue severity”. Kenealy was suffering from “mental distress so profound that… the thought of suicide had presented itself with haunting allurement,” wrote his daughter, Arabella. Some have attributed his increasingly erratic behaviour to diabetes.

Divine messenger

Dr Kenealy turned to publishing poetry — including the bizarrely titled, Goethe, a New Pantomime (1850), and translated essays, even from Hindustani and Bengali.

In his The Book of God: Apocalypse of Adam-Oannes (1867), Kenealy makes the astonishing claim that he is the “twelfth messenger of God”, descended, among others, from Adam, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and Genghis Khan. Having abandoned his Catholic faith while a student in Dublin, his mission became to return humanity to the true teachings of God by re-establishing the primitive church of the Bible.

The messenger’s aspirations have a following to this day among the congregation of the Church of God, who “will meet for the first time” at midnight tomorrow, Tuesday, July 2, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Kenealy’s birth. []

Outrageous in court

Before announcing his religious mission, Kenealy established himself as a lawyer, first on the Munster Circuit, then in England. After defending Chartist agitator Francis Looney (1848), and mass poisoner William Palmer (1856) — “the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey”, according to Charles Dickens — he acted on behalf of Fenian soldier Ricard O’Sullivan Burke (1867).

In 1873, he became notorious. Fooled by his claimant’s “well-kept, delicate hands” and the dignified way he unfolded letters, he agreed to defend impostor Thomas Castro, a butcher from Wagga Wagga who professed to be the long-lost Sir Roger Tichborne, miraculously recovered from a shipwreck.

Although the missing man was slightly built and English, the claimant weighed 27 stone and sported an Australian accent. Tichborne had once lived in Paris and spoke fluent French, a detail, points out historian Kevin Gordon, the claimant “brushed off by saying that he had forgotten how to speak the language”.

During the trial — 215 witnesses testified against Castro — Kenealy yelled at witnesses, lectured the court on religion, ridiculed the Catholic Church, and called the judge an “old rogue in scarlet and ermine”. His interruptions and rants protracted the case so that it became the longest in British history, at 188 days. At its conclusion, the jury condemned his violent behaviour.

Kenealy went on to set up his own newspaper, The Englishman, which sold 100,000 copies in its first week. Since he continued to lampoon judges, Kenealy’s Inn disbenched and disbarred him, although Vanity Fair dubbed him “a Redresser-General of Wrongs to the British Public”.

Friendless in parliament

His legal career in tatters, he returned to politics, formed the Magna Charter Association, and went on a frantic nationwide tour to protect liberties, establish an “honest” press, and restore three-yearly elections.

While renting a house at 4 Tavistock Square, London, he travelled down to Portslade, East Sussex, at weekends to visit his wife and 11 children, and would relax by walking in the countryside as far as the peaceful village of Hangleton.

In 1875, he was elected as an Independent MP for Stoke-on-Trent, with a majority of 2,000. But his irregular behaviour in court made him so disliked in parliament that no MP was willing to introduce him — as was standard practice — when he took his seat. Disraeli had to pass a motion dispensing with this ancient tradition.

Having lost the seat in 1880, Kenealy returned to London, where he died of heart failure on April 16. Today, he lies buried in the graveyard at St Helen’s Church, in his beloved Hangleton, 500 miles away from his native Cork.

Around the edges of his tomb, red, gold and turquoise stones form a bright frame, and cluster conspicuously on the slab in the shape of a flamboyant cross. The outlandish tomb encapsulates eccentric Edward Kenealy’s colourful life.

Memoirs of Edward Vaughan Kenealy, by Arabella Kenealy (John Long, London, 1908)

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