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The Journal of John Kavanagh


The diary of Samuel Pepys (1633 – 1703) is probably the best known diary in the English language. Written in cipher and translated by John Smith, Pepys’ diary covers the period of his life from the 1st of January 1659 to May 1669.

Douglas Hyde, the first president of Ireland kept a diary from 1874 to 1912. Another diarist who has recently come to my attention is Fr. John Kavanagh (1749 – 1825) who was left a full record – 280 closely written octavo pages – of his life at home and abroad covering a period of 35 years. This diary is in the safe keeping of the Congregation of the Passion at Mount Argus, Dublin.

The Penal Laws of Ireland, which denied formal education as well as religious freedom to Catholics, were still in force when John was born at Annagh near Gorey in County Wexford, Ireland on 27th, December, 1749 to parents Terence and Elenora. His mother died when he was seven, leaving five children, he apparently the youngest, but he wrote fondly of his step mother.

Before reaching the age of five, he began his education in a series of “hedge schools”, involving many teachers of diverse character and ability whose tutelage produced in the young John a classical scholar, good mathematician, song writer and poet.

When John was fourteen years of age he suffered an injury to his right temple in a fall from a horse but a year later he was back in full health. In May 1766 he qualified as a book-keeper.

After his paternal grand-mother’s death in June 1766, he remained at home for four years. In 1770 John Kavanagh decided he would become a priest and began a course in Latin. He was ordained to the priesthood by the Bishop of Ferns, Dr. Sweetman, on 30th October 1774, and he was on his way to the Irish College of Nantes, France to further his studies in May 1775, pursuing a two year philosophy course.

During the summer months it was customary for student priests to go out as chaplains to wealthy families, and Fr. John went to the country seat of the Marquis de Lambilly at Kergrois.

With his studies completed he left France for Ireland arriving on 13th March 1781, but returned to France a few months later and was commissioned in the Chaplaincy Service of the French Navy on 13th March 1782, appointed to the ship “Active”

The diary ends after his service in the French Navy, the last entry being for 12th October 1784, and nothing is known of his subsequent career beyond the fact that in 1800 he went to Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow as Parish Priest, where he ministered until his death in 1825. He is buried in the little cemetery of Grenane, Co. Wicklow.

Somewhere in France the story of those unrecorded sixteen years waits to be unfolded. After his exciting time in the navy did he withdraw to some backwater ministry, to a major city, Paris perhaps where he experienced the horror of the French Revolution?

There the revolution had been a success and it changed the lives of the multitudes. The Irish Rebellion of 1798 was a total failure. How would he have felt, returning to the aftermath of that glorious stand against oppression, to witness the tragic failure resulting and final degradation of in the Act of Union? Perhaps he was beyond politics.

I wonder also if there is another generation of his family at Annagh today, or if the key to those unrecorded years lies in some yellowing pages in an old trunk somewhere?

Bridget Kavanagh Dalton

This article first appeared in the Clann Chaomhánach Annual of 1996