I met Therese Hicks through my newsletter as she shares an interest in 17th century Irish history. Therese is a historian who has been researching an Irish family, the Kennedys, with what started as local history. She soon realized that the Kennedys were more than that. The family survived, in fact prospered, during some of the most tumultuous periods of Irish history.
The culmination of Therese’s research is the release of her new non-fiction history, No Mere Irish. I’ve been enjoying this very interesting history, in particular how the family’s fortunes are placed within the context of the greater history of Ireland. I would highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in a social history of 17th century Ireland.
It’s with a great deal of pleasure that I welcome Therese on my blog as she shares with us her research. Welcome, Therese!
My experience of researching for a seventeenth century family by Therese Hicks
Wordwell Books has recently published my work of local history, No Mere Irish: The Kennedys of Mount Kennedy, the fruit of eight years of work. No one had known anything about the Kennedys who gave this village, now small town, its name, so it has been very gratifying to be able to discover this family history. It is a dramatic story set in a dramatic century. For this reason, I will also try my hand at a historical novel about this family in the next few years. But first, some recounting of my experience of doing the research.
Researching in seventeenth century Ireland is challenging for a number of reasons. I wandered into it quite innocently when I was asked to research the ruins a local Catholic church. Even a cursory glance would indicate that the local landlord would have been involved, due to the quality of its construction. The small town nearby is Newtownmountkennedy, so I went looking for the Mount Kennedy estate papers. Internet searches brought no joy as to the location, or even the existence, of such papers. Eventually, however, a genealogist was able to tell me exactly where the papers are: the National Library of Ireland, Dublin. I quickly ordered the papers, arrived on the appointed day, and settled myself at a desk in the manuscripts room. I was presented with the requested folder, I opened it, and found myself confronted by … the worst sort of chicken scratch imaginable! I struggled to make out a word here or there, but it was a lost cause.
My next surprise was the fulsome generosity of professional historians who work in this time period. A few weeks later, I found myself sitting next to a fellow who could read what is called secretary hand, an English script widely used in this century. For two and a half days, he sat with me while I got my eye on this script. With the help of that bit of luck and generosity, I gradually made my way through the 450 estate papers over the following three years. However, the organizing system that archivists use to arrange such papers is not primarily based on chronology. This meant that I had very little idea what would be in any particular folder before it arrived. So each day, when I opened another one, it could be either a rather humdrum rental agreement, or the absolutely startling revelation of some unexpected event. Because the seventeenth century was a very nasty time in Ireland, the surprise was rarely pleasant – in fact, anything but.
The earliest such surprise happened when I encountered the document in which Protestant Robert Kennedy, later to be the first baronet of Mount Kennedy, was buying the wardship of the son of another Robert Kennedy, a Catholic (probably his second cousin, once removed), who had died a year previously. This wardship allowed the buyer to asset strip the ward’s estate, in this case netting the buyer a great sum of money, as the deceased man had been one of the wealthiest merchants in Dublin in the 1600s and 1610s. This further propelled the younger man along his path of large property acquisitions. However, for the deceased’s family, it was utter ruin. Despite there having been seven sons, none of them produced an heir, and the family faded into oblivion. I was witnessing, after the fact, an act of incredible cruelty. The emotional impact on myself was distressing.
Coming to grips with the fact that my main man in this Kennedy story was not a nice person was another challenge that confronted me in my research journey. On the other hand, most of the men with whom he interacted were not nice people either, so definitely a man of his times. This business style was powerfully demonstrated by a lord deputy of Ireland, who was the head of the government from 1633 to 1641. Although I had known from fairly early on that Kennedy had been removed from his prestigious government post of chief remembrancer of the Exchequer, it wasn’t until an unexpected document was thrown up by a search engine that the gruesome details emerged. Basically, Lord Deputy Thomas Wentworth wanted Kennedy’s post for his own supporters. He proceeded to intimidate a jury, threatening them with imprisonment if they did not find Kennedy guilty of misdeeds. When Kennedy tried to take a case charging this intimidation, he was thrown into prison by Wentworth until he apologised for taking such a case.
Fortunately, there were some pleasant surprises as well. There are funeral notices from this time period in Dublin, in fact seventeen volumes of them. Near the end of my trawling through them, I happened upon the funeral entry for Kennedy’s wife’s (Constance Sulliard) mother who was Margaret Sulliard, nee Sankey. It was a particularly complete entry, including the names of all Margaret’s children along with their spouses. This revealed a significant network of people to which Robert Kennedy would have had access. Indeed, it included the names of several men whom I could see were very involved in Kennedy’s life, but hadn’t realized that they were in fact his brothers-in-law. It is very satisfying to come upon such a treasure trove, as it ties so many actors in the story together.
The funeral entry for Robert Kennedy was much less satisfactory, however. It simply said that he was ‘buried in the country’. He was around 84 years of age when he died, so he evidently was not very active on the Dublin scene as he would have been earlier in his life. But where was he buried? A few years went by, with no answer to my question emerging. Then I put on my thinking cap. Of course! I went looking for the burial records of the two local Church of Ireland parishes. Voila! The records for the parish of Delgany, Co Wicklow stated that he was buried in their old graveyard in 1668, in the chancel of the ruined medieval church. I made my way there, expecting to see a grave marker of some description. But alas, all that remains is a flat patch of ivy. Obviously, someone didn’t like the Kennedys.
Therese Hicks, originally from the United States, has resided in Newtownmountkennedy, Co. Wicklow for the past 20 years. After retiring from the HSE as a psychotherapist in 2014, she returned to her earlier interest in history, and began to look into the local history of her current home. Her investigations led her to the estate papers of the Kennedys of Mount Kennedy. With much assistance from professional historians, she has discovered their story, not previously told.
About No Mere Irish
The Kennedys of Mount Kennedy
The seventeenth century in Ireland was a time of huge change. At its beginning, there were still significant areas under Catholic Gaelic ownership and cultural sway; by the end – almost none. The story of how the island made this journey is not well known.
This Kennedy family provides us with a window into a turbulent century from the point of view of people who lived there. They were one of the few Gaelic lines who not only became thoroughly anglicized, but who went that one step further and embraced Protestantism. Their story shows how this accelerated their rise to power and improved their social standing. They became lords of a manor and baronets. Yet despite their adroit manoeuvring, the instability of the times eventually led to their undoing. The final twist to their story sees the last baronet become a Benedictine priest.
This book will be of interest not only to those who live in Newtownmountkennedy and the surrounding communities in Co Wicklow, but also to Dubliners, as a major part of their story is set in this city. It is a book for anyone who is interested in Irish history, especially when told from a family’s own experience. Up close and personal makes history come alive.
No Mere Irish is published by Wordwell Books and is available on Kindle through Amazon (Amazon US, Amazon UK) or purchase the paperback directly through the publisher.
What fascinating research. I think there is so much to be gained by “going deep” on a particular family and/or generation (of course I’m slightly partial to family history!). An excellent article and I’m impressed by the dedication and perseverance of Ms.Hicks. I hope we hear more from her.
Thanks very much for your response, Elizabeth! Yes, perseverance was required, but has been rewarded. Your own work has been inspiring.
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Such an intriguing deep dive into a time and place I find fascinating. Thanks for this great post!