Page 1: Biography
Merchant, mine owner, businessman, Catholic layman
This biography, written by Hugh Laracy, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Martin Kennedy exemplifies those Irish Catholics who arrived in New Zealand with little capital, limited vocational skills and few social advantages, yet were able to prosper and to achieve a substantial measure of public eminence. Kennedy was born in County Tipperary, Ireland, probably in 1839 or 1840, the son of Ellen Minogue and her husband, William Kennedy, a farmer. Nothing is known of his life until he emigrated to Victoria, Australia, in January 1860. For 12 months he sought gold on the diggings there. He then moved on to New Zealand to try his luck on the newly opened Otago goldfields, as a storekeeper rather than a digger. For four years he and his brother were merchants at Queenstown until the West Coast goldrush began. On 20 August 1868 Kennedy married Mary Minogue in Melbourne. He then shifted to Greymouth, where he prospered as a merchant.
Backed by the profits from his established trading operations, Kennedy branched into other areas. In 1870 he was a founder of the Greymouth Gas Company, but it was in mining, first for gold and then for coal, that he made his fortune. In 1874 he bought a share in the colliery at Brunnerton, and about 1880 became sole proprietor of the mine as well as of a fleet of colliers. The same year he gave up his mercantile business.
Kennedy also dabbled briefly in politics. In 1874 he was beaten by J. A. Bonar in the election for superintendent of the newly created province of Westland. He won the parliamentary seat of Grey Valley in 1876, only to resign it in 1878 to concentrate on business. In 1888 he merged his mining interests with those of the Westport Coal Company at Brunnerton to form the Grey Valley Coal Company, of which he became managing director, and sold the colliers to the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand.
The following year Kennedy shifted to Wellington, where he and his family lived in a large house in Kelburn on a site later occupied by Weir House. He became managing director of J. Staples and Company's brewery in Thorndon and continued to enlarge his place within the business community. He purchased a sheep run in Wairarapa, and was a director (representing the shareholders) of the Bank of New Zealand from its reconstruction in 1894 until his death, and chairman for six months during 1913. In 1892 he became, with John Ballance and W. P. Reeves, a member of the board which took over the New Zealand Times and made it the organ of the Liberal party.
A strong supporter of home rule for Ireland, Kennedy helped organise visits to New Zealand by advocates of that cause in 1889, 1906 and 1911. In 1896 while on a visit to Ireland he spoke at the Irish National Convention, which had been designed to heal the split in the Home Rule movement. He was also concerned for New Zealand's independence, and opposed proposals for an Australasian federation.
Kennedy had been prominent in Catholic affairs since the 1860s. In 1869 he invited the Hibernian Australasian Catholic Benefit Society to open a branch in Greymouth. In Wellington he was a member of several Catholic parochial bodies, was prominent in the Society of St Vincent de Paul, and was a life member of the St Patrick's branch of the Hibernian society. When it was proposed to build a basilica appropriate for a metropolitian see, Kennedy became a trustee of the building fund, directing all its financial investments. He also donated land worth £3,000.
Kennedy was a close personal friend of Mother Aubert and a generous supporter of her philanthropic work, particularly Our Lady's Home of Compassion at Island Bay; he would have been more generous had the home not provided for non-Catholics as well as Catholics. Mother Aubert's herbal remedies were for a time bottled at Kennedy's brewery, and he ensured that she received valuable legal advice in her dealings with companies such as Kempthorne Prosser and Company's New Zealand Drug Company. He also advanced her regular small sums for her personal comfort; she, however, steadfastly diverted these to her charities.
The provision of Catholic education was a long-standing concern of Martin Kennedy. As a member of the House of Representatives he had opposed the Education Bill of 1877 because it did not grant funding to non-state schools. He encouraged the Hibernian society to help set up the Wellington Catholic Education Trust Board and donated land for the Marist brothers' schools at Newtown and Thorndon. He also funded scholarships to allow Catholic boys from throughout New Zealand to attend St Patrick's College in Wellington. He was made a knight of the papal order of St Gregory the Great for his services to the Catholic church.
Through his leadership of the Catholic community and his prominence in business, Martin Kennedy had helped to bring the Catholic church into the mainstream of New Zealand social life. He died in Wellington on 25 August 1916 and was buried from St Mary of the Angels' Church, the main altar of which had been donated by his family. He was survived by his wife, one son and four daughters, one of whom, Cecily, was a nun at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Island Bay.