October 26, 2022
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Learning about Anna Leahy Kenney: Survivor and Transformative Family Matriarch

Photographs of Irish who survived the Great Hunger are special treasures to us. An occasional image is found in a drawer or album, and we are mesmerized by it. Some of us have the wonderful fortune of discovering a bit about their lives through various resources available to the modern researcher, including census records, newspapers and city directories, for example. These have become easily accessible in these years of digitization, and we just might marvel at what we discover. Such was our experience as we searched for the story of Anna Leahy Kenney, a seemingly simple woman who brought her family to America just to survive.  

 Anna was born in County Galway circa 1825, and was raised by her parents, John and Anna Leahy in Ballynakill, bordering Ross parish. Located near Clonbur and Cong, Ross was 36 miles east of the Atlantic, and was among the most modest settings in all of Ireland. 80% of Ross parish homes were 4th class (see an example in the above photograph), and an overwhelming number of its residents were illiterate: some 87% according to census records. This was the highest rate in all of Ireland, and one can imagine that male education ticked a bit higher than female education as well, leaving very few young women with any education at all. 95% of the female population was illiterate, but 80% of them were Gaelic speakers, as was the Leahy family.

 80% of the men of the county did agricultural work, and County Galway held the most sheep of all the counties of Ireland. Wheat and oats were the predominant cash crops for landholders, while the erratic but nutritious potato was grown on the small plots set aside for tenant families to feed themselves. While many crops allow for long-term storage, and hence the building of wealth, the lowly potato in its best years barely lasted until the next crop was planted. Survival was constantly an issue, and yet the resourceful Irish gained in population dramatically just before the tragic famine years, capping at approximately 8.1 million people.

Anna’s younger days included meeting a young man that became the love of her life. Daniel Kenney was born in 1814 in Ross parish, and we do wonder how they met. Perhaps their families had a small patch of land near each other, or attended church together. Whatever the circumstance, they married and began a family, with their first daughter Mary arriving in 1843. Agnes was born in 1845, and the family of four entered the tragic famine years together, finding some sort of way to survive. A third daughter joined them during those desperate years. She was named Anna, after her mother, and records indicate that she was born in 1848.

Fathers took any work that was available, and families sought out any possible ways to be fed, working on public projects and relying on donated “Indian meal” (corn) and local soup kitchens to keep body and soul together. Hunger led to compromised immune systems, and Galway had high death rates by fever in the black year of 1847. Small pox destroyed many in the county by 1849, and cholera also did its deadly work among those who wondered if their family would survive at all.

An additional indignity was the horror of the workhouses, where those without any land to speak of entered out of desperation. Families were separated by sex and age, and the close quarters added to the spread of illnesses among the greatly weakened that found shelter there. An example of the tragedy found in workhouses was the death of 40% of Galway inmates during the week ending April 3, 1847.

Building a future for them seemed best in Baltimore, where other members of the Kenney family had set out for previously. They arrived and a fourth daughter was born on October 25, 1850. She was named Rose, and was baptized at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church by Father Hickey, an assistant Pastor at the predominantly Irish Church (photo below).

Anna and Daniel Kenney followed the pattern of many immigrant Irish who arrived in Baltimore during these bad times. St. Vincent Church records show that half of those baptized in the era were children with Irish surnames, and crowded conditions in the neighborhood caused many houses in the parish’s Jonestown neighborhood to subdivide. Some headed northward into a neighborhood known as “Old Limerick”, near Baltimore’s modern-day Main Post Office on East Fayette Street. Others with an agricultural bent headed northeast into the 12th District of neighboring Baltimore County, just north of where a new parish was being established in the shadows of the Baltimore Penitentiary, nearby Gallows Hill and Green Mount Cemetery. It would be known as St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, in Baltimore city’s 8th Ward at that time.

 The new parish was established to meet the needs of Irish Catholics who lived near the city limits of Northeast Baltimore and the neighboring farmlands just above. These were truck farms that shipped their products into Baltimore on a daily basis, supplying the many public markets that fed a booming city. Many of these farming families had been established many years earlier, and often by mainline Protestants. Catholics that hadn’t had quite enough of farming life headed there as well, and did agricultural work in the aptly named “Gardenville” area. Such was the case with Daniel Kenney, and he and his wife established a home where they could raise four daughters…and then some.

Anna and Daniel Kenney and their children were among the founding families of St. John’s, known affectionately in its heyday as St. John’s, 10th Ward. Their earliest full-time pastor was Rev. Bernard J. McManus, who baptized many Kenney children, including two sons who died at a young age. They also had three additional daughters, known as Kate, Ella and Sarah. The family was complete by 1862, with seven daughters in place. Each was prepared to play their role in establishing a new way of life in America among the first generation of Irish who were raised there; three native Irish girls, joined by four who were born in Baltimore, Maryland.

 Living among the rural families just northeast of Baltimore led to the normal results of familiarity. Daniel worked among the many farmers there, including the landholding Quick family. He and Arthur Quick, an Irish native as well, filled out their naturalization applications together in 1854, becoming citizens two years later. All three of the oldest daughters married into neighboring farming families as well, led by 18-year-old Agnes B. in 1863. She married John J. Burgan (photo below)at a Baptist church downtown: perhaps due to her Catholicism and his Protestantism.

Anna and Daniel’s grandchildren came a few years later, and Agnes is shown as a young woman holding Annie Jane, born on December 22, 1866 (photo below). Her baptism was held at St. John’s, and a young Henry J. Parlett served as a sponsor.

Henry kept all good things in the family, and the young descendant of a Gardenville farming family married a second Kenney daughter (Mary). Daughter Annie wed in the same pattern, marrying Zachariah Parlett. All three of the young Kenney women, each a native of Ireland, were married by age 18 and began families of their own. Agnes, Mary and Annie raised three, four and four children respectively, and the legacy of a famine surviving family from County Galway was well established.

One does wonder about what living in America meant to young women who spent their early childhood among the poor and illiterate of Ross Parish, County Galway. It was often a struggle for Irish families to establish a dowry for their oldest daughter, let alone her younger sisters. Younger daughters in Ireland often lived as spinsters or became “women religious” (nuns) for that reason, but the Kenney girls each became wives and mothers in their new found home in America. This must have been particularly gratifying to Anna and Daniel Kenney, who became grandparents just a few years after they wondered if they would survive at all.

Anna Leahy Kenney, who faced the reality of probable tragedy in her native Ireland, led her family to a new beginning in America, and transformed our understanding of what it means to be Irish. This first of two major redefinitions, understood to be the development and thriving of young women within a family context, has led to several generations of descendants continuing into the present day. We are most thankful.

A second area of transformation happened as a result of the leadership and sacrifices of Anna and her husband Daniel. Once apart of a mostly illiterate impoverished parish in West Galway, they positioned their young daughters to receive an education in America and develop intellectually. This began at a Baltimore parish that was dedicated to girl’s education. At least one daughter continued into the college level, and the four young sisters, each who remained single, were thought of as a group of educated women.

Both Mom and Dad were listed as literate in the 1870 Census, and their St. John’s parish focused on female education from the outset. The Sisters of Charity led the parish Academy as early as the 1858 school year, and girls who wanted to continue their education could continue upward at nearby Institute of Notre Dame, just two blocks away. The Catholic preparatory school was established in 1864 and received many girls from their neighboring Irish parish.

Their second group of daughters, a “quartet” of Kenney girls, were Rose, Kate, Ella and Sarah. They were different than their Irish born siblings, who began families of their own. None of them married, and each played different supportive roles within the home they shared. Rose continued her mother’s tradition of keeping house, while Kate, handy with a needle and thread, became a dressmaker and milliner for a large department store. Sarah joined her there once finishing High School and worked in sales, while Ella continued her education at the college level. After graduating from one of Baltimore’s two Normal Schools (teacher training), Ella became a teacher at School #11 by 1888, in its Male Division.

The sisters shared a home for many years, and continued a relationship with their parents into 1902, when they lost both of them within a few months of each other. Anna and Daniel Kenney had moved into the city once farmlands to the northeast had been sold for development, but their home continued to be a gathering place. Various illnesses led to Daniel’s death on April 12, 1902. The Baltimore Sun listed him as leaving behind his dear wife Anna, as well as 7 daughters, 15 Grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren. He was born over 200 years ago, and is remembered today by this remarkable photograph.

Anna was overwhelmed with it all, and passed away just 5 ½ months later of paralysis of the heart…undoubtedly broken by the loss of her husband Daniel, who she had known since childhood in County Galway. The same grandchildren that had carried off her husband now performed the service again, and a second Requiem Mass was held at St. Paul Catholic Church on Caroline Street. They would now be together for eternity in the family plot at New Cathedral Cemetery in West Baltimore. Their four single daughters would eventually join them there.


Their daughter Agnes, one of seven, is pictured above as a grandmother. She has posed here with one of those great grandchildren mentioned in the Kenny's death notices, that had descended from her. She was known as Mary Viola Burgan, and followed the family tradition of receiving a good education. She is shown below on her graduation day from Baltimore's Eastern Female High School in 1918.

Four additional generations have continued that legacy of education into these modern days. 

All of this from a simple woman, raised in the most modest of settings…what hath God wrought? Anna was an example and pattern of thousands of Irish women who played a vital role in transforming our understanding of what it means to be Irish in America…notably in the areas of family development and education.

Many thanks to the contributors to this posting:

Baltimore Sun

Census of the United States

City Directories, Baltimore.

Maryland Center for History and Culture

National Archives

Holcomb, Eric L. 2005.The City as Suburb: A History of Northeast Baltimore Since 1660. Santa Fe: Center of American Places.

 Kennedy, Liam, Paul S. Ell, E.M. Crawford and L.A. Clarkson.1999. Mapping The Great Irish Famine: a Survey of the Famine Decades. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Burgan, Sullivan and McCusker Families

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