Captain’s Log:  The Mariner Kennedys of  Newfoundland

     Irish immigration to the New World is often marked by Ireland's great potato famine of 1847. While the decade beginning around 1847 may have marked the largest wave of mass migration out of Ireland, there were earlier Irish exoduses due to less severe potato blights in previous decades and these plights coincided the struggle for Irish sovereignty and freedom from Colonial possession. Prior to 1800, the Irish were spurred by the ideals of the French revolution and later the American struggle for independence from British colonial rule. The quest for Irish political sovereignty and religious freedom were important factors in the Irish pilgrimages to the New World in the 17th and 18th centuries long before the more well-known, and larger emigration that took place during the famine years of the 1840s. As commerce between the old and new world became more routine and trade routes increased, the crossing of the Atlantic early on served as a valve for the releasing of social, political, and economic pressures mounting in Ireland.  Facing Cromwell's army and land evictions many Irish, were seeking refuge in the New World well in advance of the Great Hungers onset.  Others were transported for the purpose of paying debts to the Crown or lining its coffers.

    Some early Irish migrants literally worked their way across the Atlantic to Newfoundland in a seasonal fishing industry that was initially dominated by the West country merchants of England. Fishermen from the SE of Ireland began to travel regularly to the rich fishing grounds off Newfoundland.  Ireland provided a cheap source of labor for the harsh conditions of out port living in Newfoundland not to mention a cheaper source of  flax. In the latter part of the 1700s and early 1800s the longstanding connections established by seasonal migration provided the basis for waves of permanent emigration.  An estimated 30,000 to 35,000 people, drawn overwhelmingly from Waterford and its hinterland, settled in Newfoundland 1800-1830, giving its popular culture and spoken English a distinctive flavor. [1]

     The Grand Banks of Newfoundland had been drawing foreign fishermen to its cod-rich waters as early as the beginning of the Sixteenth century. The natural bounty of these grounds  drew fishermen from as far as the Basque region of Spain .  Not too long after the English pilgrims settled Plymouth Rock there would be other migrants crossing the Atlantic in search of a better place to situate themselves.  The island of Newfoundland was becoming the home of cod fishermen and later seal hunters working off the Labrador coast.  This was a difficult place for even the heartiest of settlers but Newfoundland became home to Irish fisherman, and the Irish planters and merchants who helped support their trade.   The Irish Fishery  flourished in Newfoundland.

Conditions in Ireland

     The political and religious climate of southern Ireland at the turn of the 16th century is well-depicted in the story of the unknown sailors and martyrs of Wexford as acknowledged by the Ferns Diocese of that county.   The diocese recounts the hanging and torture of Matthew Lambert, Robert Myler, Edward Cheevers, Patrick Cavanagh and the unknown sailors of Wexford charged with treason after providing aid to the Viscount James Eustace of Baltinglass who took up arms  and refuted the Queen’s church when he declared  support for the Pope.  Eustace was to flee by way of Wexford Port and as a result Lambert and his counterparts were to be made an example by the Queen’s Bench.

 "...latent tensions began to surface in the reign of Elizabeth. The subjugation of the native Irish was expensive, and the government demanded taxation to pay for it.' This was much resented in a society which for centuries had had to rely on self-defence but was now expected to pay tax to support the Queen's administration and the Queen's army. In County Wexford, as elsewhere, most of the profits from the subjugation of the Gaelic lordships went to newly arrived and more thrusting Englishmen. The poor people seem to have found these even more oppressive than their native gentry had been.

By this time the religious issue was also emerging as a source of tension. By and large, 'English Ireland' seems to have had few hesitations in accepting Henry VIII (1509-47) as in some sense 'head of the Church', if only because this had little or no impact on daily life. Religious changes did begin to impinge, however, when the Book of Common Prayer was introduced in the reign of Edward VI (1547-53). This change in the Sunday religious service was widely and positively resented.

By the 1570s 'recusancy', or an unwillingness to follow the government religion, was being strengthened by the influence of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, as may be seen in the case of the priest Richard French' and even more strikingly with the merchants and ship owners like Jasper Codd, Richard Sinnott and Patrick Hay. These had clearly taken what must have been a very difficult decision, namely, to commit themselves to political and even military action against Queen Elizabeth in the light of the papal excommunication of 1570. "[2]

    The next century in Wexford was fraught with local rebellion against English colonial rule.  A branch of the Kennedy’s which had its origin in the southeast corner of Ireland in  Wexford County found itself in an untenable position.  They were largely fisher folk  subject to the waxing and waning of the industry.   They would go where they could find a comfortable cove hopefully free from political and religious strife.  They were destined for America but would  make  Newfoundland their home port.  These Kennedys had a limited knowledge of farming  but they were well-respected for their knowledge of the sea.  In the early years of the nineteenth century, the fishery in Ireland declined and it was with much difficulty they struggled to gain a livelihood from the sea.  There were reports that the fishery was flourishing in the US and employment in that line  was plentiful.  Consequently in February 1807, two windjammers with two Kennedy families on board sailed out of Rosslare,  Wexford bound for New Bedford, Massachusetts.   February is noted for being the stormiest winter month of the year on the North Atlantic ocean but arriving in Spring would assure them a position in the fishery.  On board one of the windjammers was wife of Captain Nicholas Kennedy, a very pregnant Grace Young, who gave  birth to Nicholas Kennedy II delivered at mid-ocean. Caught halfway between Ireland and America the captain decided for the safety of his wife and newborn son to put in at first port.   Captain Kennedy would put in at Harbor Grace in Conception Bay, Newfoundland while the other Kennedy windjammer continued on and landed not at New Bedford but at Newburyport, Massachusetts to settle for fishing off Cape Cod. [2]

      Captain Nicholas and Grace Young settled in Harbor Grace alongside the Kennedys of Crocker's Cove who had already been there for more than a century.   The Kennedys of Crocker's Cove were well-established in the cod-fishery of Newfoundland and active in the foreign trade bring salt fish to the West Indies and returning with sugar, molasses, and rum from the islands, salt and oil from Portugal and Spain, and butter, pork, and woolen clothes from Waterford.  That the Wexford Kennedys were heading to New Bedford makes little sense.  They were not whalers but fished for herring.  It makes more sense that the destination would have been Newfoundland though permanent settlement there was greatly discouraged by the British governor and the persecution of Irish Papists was foreboding.  That these Irish Kennedys would have made better cod-fishermen or sealers than whalers is a slightly moot point as they can be found in both geographic areas working both industries successfully.  They were captains of their own schooners early on and skilled navigators but remained subject to the ebb and flow of an increasingly stressed fishing environment.

        A downturn in the Irish fishery was part of the cause for their migration.  This economic condition was compounded by the political realities of local conflict and the impending threat of British impressments before the war of 1812.   There is some family lore that this Wexford line left Ireland after involvement with Wolfe Tone and the rebellions of 1798.  The lore mentions the  Rising of the Moon rebellion but evidence other than lore has yet to be found if it exists.   The likelihood that  fisher folk were at the forefront of these largely rural conflicts is somewhat speculative but the possibility that those in port were in a position to support the rebels in some manner remains to be investigated.   Perhaps there is some  religious aspect which influenced the participation of this line in the Wexford rebellions.   Coincidental as it may have been we may never know if there was a prior relation between the Kennedys arriving from Wexford and the Kennedys already in Newfoundland.  In 1755, the Irish Catholic Kennedys in Crocker's Cove were the subject of  religious persecution at the hands of British colonial Governor Dorrill.   Aside from devout faith, this history has likely influenced the staunch Catholic nature of many Kennedys in this branch.  Permanent settlements on the island of Newfoundland was discouraged by the British government under the guise that it would be too costly to maintain control and defend anything other than a fishing station there.  This policy became increasingly difficult to sustain and inevitably some merchants of England established plantations, remained on the island during the winter, and retained Irish servants as well.  It may have been uncommon for Irish planters to establish themselves during the early decades of the 18th century but by the 1730s there were a number of Catholic families in the Port de Grave area including a Kennedy family recorded at Hibb's Hole in 1735.  Several miles north up the road the Kennedys of Crockers Cove were well-established by 1755 when  the house of Terence and Mary Kennedy was razed in 1755 for having been married by a "Papist" priest in the privacy of their own home.  They were ordered banished by  British Colonial Governor Dorrill.  At about the same time, John Kennedy was branded with an "R" (perhaps for Roman Catholic?) on his hand and ordered banished for having knowledge of a crime committed against an English planter by the name of Keane and the anti-Irish sentiment of English settlers grew.  Terence Kennedy was not just a "simple, seasonal fisherman." He had at least 10 Irishmen under his employ.  It appears that between the desire to limit settlement and keep the growth of the Irish population at bay the prosecution of penal laws was carried out to the fullest extent possible.   Catholicism was illegal in Newfoundland and penal laws were not relaxed until 1783 after the British lost the American Revolution but even in 1788 religious riots in Newfoundland continued to be a problem.   By the 1820s, 9 of 10  residents in the Harbor Grace area were Irish Catholics and a tenuous religious peace established.  The early  Kennedys of Newfoundland having left the religious battlefield of Ireland found a that while the New World  may not have been a more friendly religious environment in the New World it was perhaps less life threatening.  They may have escaped the gallows but they did not avert punishment for their religious practices.  

     The Kennedys from Crocker's Cove did not escape persecution in a new land:

      "Whereas at a court held at Crocker's Cove September 25, 1755, at which you R. Mulms and Thomas Garland was present at which time it did appear before us that public mass was read in Terrence Kennedy's house and the said Kennedy and his wife married by the priest which does appear from the confession of Mary Kennedy, his wife. We therefore think proper to fine said Kennedy the sum of ten pounds sterling money for payment of court fees and to burn his house down to the ground and that he quits this place and likewise this island of Newfoundland on or before October ensuing. Given under my hand at Crocker's Cove September 25th., 1755." T. Bumen

      "Whereas at a court held at Carbonear September 25th. at which R. Mullins and C. Garland were present at which time it appeared that J. Whelan, Nick Leoline, Ed. O`Brien, Darby Conners, Wm. Kennedy, Wm Hennessey, John Power, Mick Hickey, Pat Whelan and Nish Scanline, all which are servants to Terrence Kennedy and were at mass with him for which we think proper to fine them eighteen pounds ten shillings .. which fines are to go to Terrence Kennedy towards defraying the damages he sustained in burning his house. Given at Carbonear. September 25th.. 1755 To Terrence Kennedy Crocker`s Cove." T. Burnett [3]


     This persecution of the Irish Catholics in Conception Bay shows clearly that Irishmen like Michael Keating at Harbour Main, Terrence Kennedy at Crocker's Cove, and Felix McCarthy at Harbour Grace, were already established as large planters with a number of servants under them. The people at Harbour Grace were at this time dismayed by the settlement of Irish at Riverhead, and a petition was sent to the governor:


 "The Humble Petition of the Principal traders and inhabitants of Harbour Grace: Sheweth:

 That your petitioners have for some time past been greatly injured by losing their cattle, sheep etc., which they suspect have been stolen by persons which inhabit the same place but

 revendousing in several little houses lately erected in the upper end of the said Harbour. That the persons who dwell in the said huts or houses are people of loose and bad character harbouring

 numbers of idle persons which from their not entering service make them suspect of being guilty of said crime.


 Nicholas Tynt, Stephen Wittle, William Dawson, Philip Payne,

 Nick Juer, Ed. Coombs, Tom Parsons, Robert Andrews, M.

 Streetch, Henly Wethers, Mary Martin, Ed. Snow, William Martin,

 Francis Sheppard, John Martin"


 The petition was accepted by the governor, but nothing happened and the population of Riverhead today is descended from these Irish settlers. The religious persecution continued and on

 September 26, 1755, John Kennedy was tried in absentia for being an Irish Catholic:

 John Kennedy is a Roman Catholic and an inhabitant of this island contrary to law and being summoned several times to appear before us and he not appearing to the said summons, we

 think proper to fine the said John Kennedy the sum of six pounds sterling for payment of court fees -- and he to quit the island before the tenth of October ensuing.


 This was the last trial in this series of active persecutions against the Irish Roman Catholics. Though restrictions were passed from time to time, they were never again so severely enforced as by governor Dorrill in 1755. It seems obvious that the Keene murder had really stirred up the English authorities to make things a bit hot for the Irish in Newfoundland.


 The records also show that the Irish population was not confined to the Avalon Peninsula, but that (both settled and migratory) they were scattered around the various communities in the Island.[4]


     However, by the early 1800s marriage and baptismal records of Harbour Grace show that the practice of religious covenants by Catholics gained social acceptance. [ii][2] The Irish Catholics began to rapidly outpace their religious counterparts in the local population in terms of growth.  In addition, the arrival of new immigrants to Newfoundland due to the onset of worsening conditions in Ireland led to a greater proportion of Irish residents on the island.

 Conditions in New England

 Certainly, puritan New England governors were no more open to Irish Catholic immigrants than their British colonial counterparts.


[1] Mannion, James. Tracing The Irish

[2]The Diocese of Ferns provides this as a description of the religious and political problems of English attempts to rule southern Ireland after the rule of Henry VIII (1509-47). See Wexford Martyrs on the homepage of


[3] Louis A. Kennedy’s “A Brief History of the Kennedy Family,”  an unpublished essay on the  history of his family.  I have found the accuracy of my great Uncle Lou’s essay to be fairly consistent and with few errors regarding the names, occupations and marriages of those detailed.  However,  what I have found in terms of records to corroborate his essay include the baptism of Nicholas Kennedy to Captain Nicholas Kennedy and Grace in Harbor Grace, Newfoundland on May 29, 1807, sponsors were Philip Murphy and Frances Kennedy. A second son to this couple, John Kennedy, was baptized October 10, 1809, sponsors were Richard Brill and Anastasia McCarthy.  As far as the second windjammer arriving at Newburyport on Cap Cod, it seems that the other  Kennedy boat went either to  Newburyport which is in Essex County or to a port on  Cape Cod.  While no other mention of the Massachusetts branch is discussed in the essay it is curious that the author knew that the second boat did not make it to New Bedford either.  This implies that back in the early 1800s these families did know what became of  the other.  This is not to hard to imagine given the fact that they were seafarers intent on maintaining their mariner occupations and likely there familial relations as well.  After all, they emigrated Ireland with the intent of landing together in Massachusetts. 

[4] McCarthy, Mike. The Irish in Newfoundland

[5] Thomas F. Nemec, PhD Department of Anthropology, Memorial University of Newfoundland July, 1982 For publication in The Encyclopedia of Newfoundland

 Labrador, Vol. II, J.R. Smallwood and R. Pitt, eds. pg.24


[] See Appendix A which displays Kennedy Roman Catholic baptisms and marriages in Harbour Grace Newfoundland recorded as early as 1806.  This does not include  the illegal nuptials of Terrence and Mary Kennedy in 1755 in Crocker’s Cove. There  were also a number of other marriages of the Crocker’s Cove Kennedy’s recorded as Church of England marriages in Harbor Grace before 1800.   As penal laws  against the marriage of Irish Catholics became relaxed it seems the increasing number of recordings reflected more accurately the religious composition of the Harbor Grace and Carbonear