Commemorating Kate Kennedy - Frank McNally on a belated memorial to a great American educator from Meath

Kennedy became the first woman to run for state office in California

The name Kennedy has achieved great fame in America, mostly thanks to an east-coast dynasty.

But in the Meath town of Duleek on Wednesday (March 8th), locals will unveil a sculpture to a less celebrated member of the greater clan – no known relation – who did pioneering work in the west.

Kate Kennedy (1827-1890) was a humble schoolteacher for most of her adult life. Like the progenitors of the Boston family, however, she was a product of Ireland’s Famine era, memories of which she carried across the Atlantic.

That helped make her the radical she became in California, when fighting and winning at least two landmark legal campaigns for the rights of women and teachers.


Kenny was born in a place called Gaskinstown and raised, as her brother’s preface to a posthumous book of essays puts it, “at the base of Tara Hill . . . contiguous to the historic Boyne, renowned in poetry and song”.

But she grew to adulthood under a gloomier shadow, that of the Great Famine. She had also witnessed the miserable end of O’Connell’s Repeal Movement and the rise and fall of the more militant Young Irelanders, with whom she had been “in hearty sympathy”.

PJ Kennedy summed up the grim period in his preface her book: “In the midst of plenty the people starved and so-called property rights were maintained at the point of British bayonets. The clergy of every denomination . . . preached the ‘law of Compensation’ and ‘Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth’ to the famishing, and with rank blasphemy on their lips absolved landlordism”.

With these harsh lessons in mind, in 1849, Kate emigrated to New York. Seven years later, she headed west again, this time following the “Argonauts” – as the gold-rushers were known – to California, where her sisters Alice and Lizzie, both teachers, had preceded her.

She too found her vocation in the public schools of San Francisco, rising to become a principal. But this was an era when male head teachers were automatically paid more than females: $150 dollars a month to the $100 she received.

So in 1874 she launched and won a legal challenge against the discrimination and thereby forced legislation for equal pay (even if many loopholes were later found to avoid general observance).

In 1886, Kennedy also became the first woman to run for state office in California, contesting the election for Superintendent of Public Schools while paying all her own campaign expenses.

She didn’t win that, but earned a respectable vote, enough to beat the Democratic candidate, a man by the unprogressive name of “Mr Moulder”.

A year later, she took time off to tour Europe. But on return to San Francisco, she was forcibly transferred to a new school, with her pay almost halved. Then, two months into the new job, she was sacked for her political views.

So now she fought what proved to be her last campaign, on the rights of tenure for teachers generally. She pursued it to the Supreme Court and triumphed again, with an award of back-pay, before resigning anyway.

Alas, she didn’t live to collect the cheque, dying in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, just after St Patrick’s Day 1890.

In later years, like many of her generation, she had been an ardent disciple of the political economist Henry George, then a journalist in San Francisco.

George’s big idea was the “single tax”: effectively nationalising the value of land which – he argued – most often increased because of societal change and the work of others around it, rather than anything its owners did.

His 1879 book Progress and Poverty was a surprise popular success, selling millions and attracting some famous supporters then and since, including Leo Tolstoy, Franklin D Roosevelt, and Albert Einstein.

As a committed “Georgist”, Kennedy wrote a series of essays, developing her ideas. In 1906, these were collected and published in her memory as “Dr Paley’s Foolish Pigeons and Short Sermons to Working Men”.

The title and opening essay both derived from a “parable” by William Paley (1743–1805), English clergyman and moral philosopher, which transposed the capitalist system to a flock of grain-gathering pigeons, by way of dramatising its absurdity.

Led by local journalist Ken Murray, a committee in Duleek has been planning to erect a memorial of Kennedy since 2019. It was first supposed to happen in 2020. Then the pandemic intervened.

But finally, on Wednesday, they will mark International Women’s Day 2023 by presenting the bust – the work of Kells sculptor Betty Newman-Maguire – at Duleek Girls Primary School. The event is scheduled for 11.30 am. US Ambassador to Ireland Claire D Cronin will do the unveiling.