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KENNY, Sir EDWARD, businessman, politician, militia officer, and office holder; b. July 1800 in the parish of Kilmoyly, County Kerry (Republic of Ireland), son of Jeremiah Kenny, a farmer, and Johanna Crean; m. 16 Oct. 1832 Ann Forrestall in Halifax, and they had seven sons and five daughters, ten of whom survived childhood; d. there 16 May 1891.

Edward Kenny’s life fulfilled the Victorian stereotype of success. Brought up in the poverty of rural southwest Ireland, he and his elder brother, Thomas, moved in youth to the nearby port of Cork. There they became clerks for James Lyons, a merchant who ran a branch store in Halifax. Each spring Lyons came to Nova Scotia with a cargo of dry goods and provisions to sell in the colonial market. By the early 1820s he had established himself as a leading presence in Halifax’s Irish community, an achievement symbolized by his election as president of the local Charitable Irish Society. The two Kenny brothers shared in Lyons’s rise. Having proved their competence, both were brought to Halifax about 1824 and given partnerships in the firm a few years later. Ambition, stimulated by expansion within the Nova Scotian economy, prompted Thomas to go into business for himself. In 1828 Edward joined his brother in a firm, T. and E. Kenny, which throughout its history was to be dominated by the younger man. Within five years the Kennys had expanded to the point where their annual imports from Britain amounted to £15,000.

Unlike Lyons, who each autumn had auctioned off his stock and returned to Ireland, the Kennys made Halifax their permanent residence. Proceeding on borrowed capital, they bought real estate a few blocks from the waterfront and erected an imposing granite office-warehouse complex. The building eventually grew into a four-storey structure, valued in the 1860s at $50,000. As the business grew, it increasingly specialized in dry goods, which were sold exclusively on a wholesale basis. Although indifferent to investment in shipping, the Kennys did diversify, mainly into utilities and banking. Edward, the more daring of the two as an entrepreneur, assisted in bringing to Halifax such services as water, gas, and the telegraph. His emergence as a pillar of the Halifax business community was demonstrated in the 1850s and 1860s, when he helped found both the Union and the Merchants’ banks, becoming president of the latter. The Kennys also ventured into manufacturing, turning the top floor of their warehouse into a workshop where some 25 hands produced ready-made clothing. At the same time they remained cautious as investors, to the point of keeping about a third of their capital in mortgages within the Halifax market. Despite periodic business slumps and personal reverses, highlighted by a major fire in 1851 and the death at sea of one of Edward’s sons (a partner) in 1870, the firm prospered, becoming a leader in Halifax’s wholesale trade. By the late 1860s Edward Kenny was described by Thomas Louis Connolly*, archbishop of Halifax, as “perhaps the second richest man in Nova Scotia.” (By reputation Enos Collins* was the wealthiest.) At the time of Kenny’s death, the family’s net worth was estimated at $1,100,000. He left an estate of more than $200,000, which included $71,000 in real and personal property, $87,000 in bank stock, $9,000 in miscellaneous other corporate securities, and $33,000 in mortgages. Not included in this total was the business and residential property he had earlier transferred to the two sons who carried on the family business.

Edward Kenny’s rise as an entrepreneur was paralleled by his emergence as a family patriarch and a notable in the community. Unlike Thomas, who died a bachelor in 1868 leaving all his wealth to his brother, Edward married and fathered a family of seven sons and five daughters. Of the ten children who survived into adulthood, three of the boys came into the family firm, and three others, after some hesitation, opted for careers in the Jesuit order. One daughter also chose a religious vocation. Her three sisters made advantageous marriages, no doubt helped by the $40,000 dowries each received from their father. Meanwhile, Edward Kenny steadily accumulated status and influence in Halifax, becoming an officer in the local militia, being twice elected president of the Charitable Irish Society, and serving on the executive of several philanthropic and educational institutions. In the 1860s he was a founder of the prestigious Halifax Club. Tall, handsome, and jovial, a sporting enthusiast with a special appreciation of good horses and a man renowned for his hospitality, “Papa” Kenny ranked as a leading figure in the society of mid-Victorian Halifax.

The only element of controversy in Kenny’s career derived from his insistence on defending the interests of his fellow Irish Roman Catholics. During the 1830s and 1840s he played a leading role in challenging the Anglo-Protestant ascendancy in Nova Scotia. Drawn into association with political reformers such as Joseph Howe*, Kenny helped secure Halifax’s incorporation as a city in 1841. That year he entered the new sphere of municipal politics, and the next year he became mayor. In 1843, despite his association with the controversial campaign for the repeal of Ireland’s parliamentary union with Britain, Kenny was appointed to a seat on the still powerful Legislative Council. This honour was conferred on him as part of a Conservative effort to win Irish Catholic support for the existing oligarchy. Kenny, however, remained loyal to Howe throughout the tumultuous struggle for responsible government. That allegiance broke down during the ethnic and sectarian conflict aroused by the Crimean War [see Howe]. In 1857 Kenny joined the mass defection of Irish Catholics from the Liberal party, at the same time resigning as president of the Legislative Council. He was immediately restored to that office, however, by the new Conservative administration of James William Johnston*. Thereafter both parties deferred to Kenny, recognizing him as a de facto leader of the Irish Catholic element in provincial politics.

Edward Kenny’s support for confederation derived from his close association with Archbishop Connolly during the 1860s. Connolly, an astute politician, endorsed the union in the hope that this support could be exchanged for legal recognition of the parochial schools then existing in Halifax. Although denied that objective, Connolly nevertheless had sufficient influence to secure the appointment of Kenny to the new federal cabinet in 1867. Kenny was elevated to the Senate and given nominal administrative responsibilities, first as receiver general and later as president of the Privy Council, but his true role was as a spokesman in Ottawa for Canada’s English-speaking Roman Catholics. Sir John A. Macdonald also expected Kenny to assist in breaking down resistance to confederation in Nova Scotia. Although Kenny was notoriously laconic as a public speaker, his wealth, personality, and extensive social contacts made him useful to both church and state during Canada’s early years as a nation.

Never more than a transitional figure in federal politics, Edward Kenny resigned from the cabinet in 1870 to serve briefly as vice-regal representative in Nova Scotia during the absence of Lieutenant Governor Sir Charles Hastings Doyle*. Knighted the same year largely as a compliment to Canada’s Irish Catholics, Kenny abandoned politics for a life that during the mid 1870s featured travel to Europe and lobbying at the Vatican over such issues as appointments to the Canadian church hierarchy and ultramontane intervention in partisan politics. Retiring from business in 1880, Kenny lived out the last decade of his long life, secure in the knowledge that he and his children belonged to the inner circle of Halifax’s economic, social, and political élite. His funeral attracted “almost every prominent citizen” of the city, a turn-out that honoured an individual whose career embodied not only personal achievement but also the collective rise of Nova Scotia’s Irish Catholic population.

D. A. Sutherland

Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), Estate papers, nos.1585 (Thomas Kenny), 1800 (E. J. Kenny), 4121 (Edward Kenny). Halifax County Registry of Deeds, Deeds, 62: 238–39; 70: 404; 143: 260; 237: 100; 257: 563. NA, MG 26, A: 46959, 46965, 47327, 47354, 47680, 129290, 157438. PANS, MG 9, 10; MG 100, 171, no.19; RG 1, 117: 147; 313, no.115. Can., Senate, Debates, 1867–72. “The Most Rev. Thomas J. Connolly, archbishop of Halifax,” ed. F. J. Wilson, CCHA Report, 11 (1943–44): 55–108. N.S., Legislative Council, Journal and proc., 1844–67; Statutes, 1856, c.74; 1862, c.79. Charles Tupper, Recollections of sixty years in Canada (Toronto, 1914), 53–54. Acadian Recorder, 12 May 1827; 10 May 1828; 21 May 1842; 11 Oct. 1856; 2 Jan. 1858; 23 Jan. 1863; 24 May 1865; 20 May, 2 June, 27 Sept. 1870; 18 Feb., 24 Sept. 1874; 18, 20 May 1891. Evening Express and Commercial Record, 3, 22 July 1867. Halifax Morning Post & Parliamentary Reporter, 10 Nov. 1843. Morning Chronicle (Halifax), 18 July, 1 Aug. 1867; 16, 21 May 1870; 18 May 1891. Morning Herald (Halifax), 18 May 1891. Novascotian, 25 Oct. 1827; 18 Oct. 1832; 17 Oct. 1833; 29 Oct., 26 Nov. 1840; 22 April, 10 June 1841; 6 Jan., 17 March 1842; 13 Nov., 4 Dec. 1843; 22 Feb. 1847; 21 April 1851. Sun (Halifax), 24 March 1847. Times (Halifax), 5 April, 3–10 May 1842. Belchers farmers almanack, 1843–44, 1850, 1858, 1863, 1866, 1869. Halifax and its business: containing historical sketch, and description of the city and its institutions . . . (Halifax, 1876), 130–31. David Allison, History of Nova Scotia (3v., Halifax, 1916), 3: 116. T. M. Punch, Some sons of Erin in Nova Scotia (Halifax, 1980), 31–34. Waite, Canada, 1874–96, 50.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

D. A. Sutherland, “KENNY, Sir EDWARD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 24, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/kenny_edward_12E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/kenny_edward_12E.html
Author of Article:   D. A. Sutherland
Title of Article:   KENNY, Sir EDWARD
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1990
Year of revision:   1990
Access Date:   May 24, 2024