gentlemen's club with an Irish twist
The English gentlemen's clubs grew out of some of the 18th
century gambling clubs of London. Many of them are still
to be found around Pall Mall and St. James's Street near
St. James's Palace, home of the Prince of Wales.
They have become bastions of the English establishment which
were firmly barred to women until Women's Rights campaigners
started to kick in the doors of these ageing fortresses
of male supremacy.
But if you don't have the odd £1,000 or so to
spare each year, don't bother to apply.
They are not places within my usual social orbit although
I admit to having enjoyed a few evenings in the splendour
of Brooke's in St. James's Street as guest of
Dom Hugo O'Neill of Portugal, a descendant of the famous
O'Neill of Tyrone who had to flee Ireland in 1608.
But one would not necessarily associate such places with
the Irish in the 19th century. Yet the Irish have permeated
all walks of English society.
A short distance from Brooke's is the equally famous
Boodle's at 28 St. James's Street, which was established
in 1762 as the Savoir Faire coffee and gaming house.
The club has had strong Irish connections since about 1800,
when a Dublin family called Kenney arrived in England and
James Kenney took it over. Under his management, some of
the most influential English establishment figures of the
day retired behind the club's portals to indulge in
gaming, drinking and other pursuits. And the Kenney family
themselves went on to make a mark on the literary life of
the English capital.
Among the prominent members of Boodle's was Beau Brummell
(1778-1840) the friend of the Prince Regent (future George
IV) and leader of fashion. The Prince himself would slip
into the club unannounced, and woe betides Mr Kenney if
he did not leave with some winnings.
Among James Kenney's family was his 20-year-old son,
also called James Kenney (1780-1849). The manager of Boodle's
wanted his son to be a banker. He took a job at the banking
house of Herries, Farquhar and Co., but James Kenney junior
loved theatre an wanted to write.
Aged only 23, his first two-act farce, called Raising the
Wind, was staged. It became one of the most prolific and
popular playwrights of the early 19th century, producing
over 40 dramas and operas and numerous songs and poems.
One of his plays had a command performance before the young
Queen Victoria - The Pledge, or Castilian Honour.
Kenney's most popular play was Sweethearts and Wives
(1823), performed at the Haymarket and revived many times.
He married the widow of the dramatist and Republican Thomas
Holcroft (1745-1809). Holcroft had actually worked in Dublin
theatres and in 1794 he was indicted for high Treason but
then discharged without trial. Kenney had two sons and two
daughters by Holcroft's unnamed widow.
Kenny's friends included the essayist and critic Charles
Lamb (1775-1834) and the poet and patron of the arts Samuel
Rogers (1763-1855). He became part of the circle with Wordsworth,
Scott and Byron. Lord Byron did not think much of him and
was disparaging about Kenney in his book English Bards and
Later in life, Kenney actually developed a nervous affliction,
which, coupled with his Dublin accent, caused some Londoners
to mistake him for an escape lunatic and his sons had to
rescue him from being incarcerated. It was a scene worthy
of one of Kenney's own farces.
In fact, his son Charles Lamb Kenney (1823-1881) while attending
University College, London, had made friends with another
Dubiner, the future playwright Dion Boucicault (1820-1890),
probably now best remembered for the Shaughraun.
Boucicault had been sent to London to study, and demonstrated
a literary talent, which caught the attention of Charles'
father. James Kenney, and Dion Boucicault collaborated on
a farce entitled Up the Flue, or What's in the Wind,
performed at the Adelphi in May, 1846.
Charles Kenney began work as a clerk in the General Post
Office in London but then joined the staff of The Times
to which he contributed dramatic criticism. At the same
time he worked to finish his law studies, and was finally
called to the Bar.
In 1856 he became secretary to Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-1904)
who had been granted the concession to construct the Suez
Canal. The following year Charles published The Gates of
the East, a work supporting the projected construction on
which work started in 1859.
Charles, like his father before him, wrote librettos for
a number of light operas and was the author of several popular
songs of the day such as Sweet and Low (1865) and The Vagabond
(1871). A friend of both Thackery and Dickens, he was regarded
as a wit and accomplished writer. He translated the correspondence
of the French novelist Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850).
Importantly, however, he wrote the biography of the Irish
composer Michael William Balfe (1808-1817). Balfe was a
child prodigy studying music in native Dublin under O'Rourke
and in Italy under Galli. His first major work was commissioned
by La Scala in Milan and he subsequently wrote some thirty
operas - the best known now being The Bohemian Girl (1843).
He also composed the accompaniment for Moore's Irish
Melodies. Balfe died in London and is buried in Kensal Green
but you will find a tablet to his memory in Westminster
Charles Lamb Kenney died in London on August 25, 1881. It
is curious how one can find an Irish influence in the least
expected quarter. Certainly the gentlemen's clubs of
St;.James's would not have been my first port of call
in search of the Irish influence in English society. The
story of the Kenney family is one of the many success stories
of the Irish making their way in 19th century England.
Courtesy of the Irish Post