A 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 Scottish Reviewers.

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 Abbey.

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
March 2004