Turtle Bunbury

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Sir Joseph Neale McKenna (1819 –1906), Nationalist MP and Chairman of the National Bank

Like his associate William Shaw, Joseph McKenna’s political roots were intertwined with the Home Rule movement. He was born in Dublin, the son of a well-to-do Catholic businessman, Michael McKenna. The McKenna’s hailed from Co Monaghan originally and his grandfather had prospered in Philadelphia the previous century. He was educated at Trinity College Dublin and called to the Irish bar in 1849. In 1842 he married Esther Louise Howe of Dublin, and after her death married Amelia, widow of R. W. Hole.

He was elected Liberal MP for Youghal in 1865, thumping the incumbent Isaac Butt by 122 to 30 votes. His mathematical mind had a considerable influence over Irish Nationalist thoughts on Ireland’s over-taxation. He was knighted in 1867, and was a magistrate and Deputy Lieutenant for Co. Cork, and a magistrate in Co. Waterford.

He was an able financier but ultimately proved to be yet another rogue out to fleece his customers. In the 1850s and 1860s, he was both Chairman and Managing Director of the National Bank of Ireland. The bank had been founded in 1835, with Daniel O’Connell playing a major role in its creation. (It should be noted that O’Connell’s personal borrowings from the bank amounted to nearly £30,000 a year in the late 1830s and early 1840s). The bank grew quickly and, by May 1836, had seven full and 12 sub-branches.

This was a period of considerable expansion for the NBI. However, during the 1860s, the attempts by McKenna and his co-directors to diversify their business out of Ireland led to some extremely dubious investments. In order to make things happen, the bank substantially increased their capital and took on a number of highly speculative accounts. When the ‘Bank of Hindustan, China and Japan’ collapsed in 1866, the NBI was visibly shaken. Rumours also abounded about the bank’s involvement in high-risk ventures in France and Peru. Confidence in the bank plummeted. Deposits and current accounts began to dry up. The bank’s stock value inevitably plunged too. McKenna survived for a few years, ‘through bullying and bravado’, according to Cormac O Grada. In 1869, the bank’s proprietors decided enough was enough and McKenna and his co-directors were sacked. They left the company with debts of between £300-400,000 and ‘a grossly excessive paid up capital’. The shareholders, who included some well-known names, accused McKenna and the Board of paying themselves far too princely salaries and also for giving too high wages to the many croneys who occupied the top echelons of their staff. Many of these officials were deemed to be ‘more men of pleasure than of business with ideas and … habits entirely above their position’. McKenna himself was accused of lending money to companies whose security was clearly dubious. At the 1868 election, he lost his seat in Parliament. For all that, the City of London retained its confidence in the NBI and, under William Massey, McKenna’s vigilant successor, its stocks and dividends were gradually restored. By 1888, the National Bank of Ireland was the eighth largest British Bank in terms of authorised and issued capital.

McKenna bounced back from his disgraced banking career by becoming one of the stalwarts of Irish nationalism. He was at Butt’s side when the latter founded the Home Rule League in 1873. The following year he won back his seat in Youghal for the Home Rulers, holding it again in the 1880 election. He frequently lambasted Parliament for taxing Ireland without doing anything to improve the infrastructure but, as one correspondent kindly put it, 'unfortunately Sir Joseph was more learned than lucid, and knew mathematics better than he practiced amiability’. In the leadership contest of 1880, he voted for William Shaw to lead the party over Parnell. He stood successfully for the Irish Parliamentary Party for South Monaghan from 1885 to 1892, during which time he threw his allegiance behind Parnell. He retired at the subsequent general election in 1892, being then well over 70. He died at Ardogena, his residence in Waterford, in the summer of 1906, aged 89.