Few Kilkenny people have left such an extraordinary and distinguished impact on Kilkenny society as did Dr Robert Cane in the first half of the 19th century. We do not have any roads or bridges named after this remarkable man who in a relatively short life of 52 years was highly influential as a Medical Doctor, Nationalist, Historian, Writer and Antiquarian, and as a generous and concerned local politician.
Robert Cane was born in Kilkenny in 1807 and studied medicine in Trinity College Dublin and later in Edinburgh, returning each time to his native Kilkenny, working in the Fever Hospital in 1837 (now known as the Auxiliary Hospital) and later as the Medical Officer in the Workhouse which opened in the 1840s, establishing also a thriving medical practice in the city. Kilkenny in the early 1830s was a city in the throes of a cholera outbreak. Cane observed the standards of health amongst the poor and wrote papers on the lives of squalor being suffered by many in the city. During this period, in 1836, he became physician to the Marquess of Ormonde, so serving the medical needs of both rich and poor. He was a Catholic and was married to a Protestant lady, who had come to Kilkenny to live with her mother. Her father was a deceased British Army Officer. They had eight children.
Robert Cane was a Nationalist and chaired many political meetings during his college days in Dublin and upon his return to Kilkenny. He was one of the city’s leading Repealers in the 1840s and was seen as the spirit and soul of the Nationalist movement in Kilkenny, so much so that Dillon, Smith O’Brien and Thomas Francis Meagher all came to confer with him at his home at 8 William Street. He had sympathy with the aspirations of the Young Irelanders and remained friendly with Duffy, Davis, Stephens and Kickham. He refused however to aid the 1848 Rising, conscious of the lack of preparation or widespread support which would inevitably lead to much suffering and the loss of life. At the same time, he remained on good terms with Daniel O’Connell and the O’Connellites and upon his election in May 1848 to the executive of The Confederate Club, attempted to reconcile the different political strategies of both groups. Because of his reputation as a prominent Confederate, he was arrested on the 29th July 1848 and imprisoned for three months, much to the resentment and fury of a large crowd who had gathered at Dr Cane’s home in William Street at his arrest and only dispersed at the pleading of Dr Cane. During his time in prison, one of his sons – Edward – took seriously ill. Dr Cane’s request to visit his son was cruelly refused and only when sadly Edward died shortly afterwards, was Dr Cane allowed out to attend the burial of his son. Habeas corpus was suspended during this period and no charges were ever raised against Dr Cane. Yet, as a consequence, he lost all his official positions.
Robert Cane was also very prominent as a writer and historian. Regularly, he held evenings for nationalist writers at his home in William Street, including his friends John and Michael Banim. On the 19th February 1849, Robert Cane was one of “eight gentlemen of antiquarian learnings” who came together in Kilkenny to established an antiquarian society by means of a public meeting which was chaired by Dr Cane. This fledgling local society was to flourish and expand and became within 20 years the principle antiquarian society for the whole of Ireland. Cane became the first Treasurer of the new society and his treasurer’s report for 1849, submitted on the 2nd January 1850, returned a surplus of £ 9/ 7/ 6, with a paid-up membership of 61 members, each contributing a subscription of five shillings. Papers read by Dr Cane to the society were quite diverse and included:
- The Gigantic Irish fossil deer
- The Ring money of ancient Ireland
- Ormonde coin and confederate money
- Science and Literature based on religion
He also donated to the society museum a portion of the skeleton of the Irish elk.
In October 1853, he founded the Celtic Union, a nationalist literary and political society, and edited the society’s magazine The Celt, proposing a plan to unite all shades of nationalist opinion in a new political organisation. He wrote an uncompleted History of the Williamite and Jacobite Wars. He was also a regular contributor to the Dublin medical journals throughout is medical career.
Following the passing of the Municipal Act of 1843, the two Corporations , i.e. Irishtown and Kilkenny Englishtown , were incorporated into one body. Robert Cane was a member of the first council, being one of three Aldermen representing St. Canice’s ward, Henry Potter and Thomas Harte being the other two. He remained an Alderman right up to his death in 1858.
On 2nd December 1844, at a meeting of the Council of the Borough of Kilkenny, Alderman Maxwell proposed Alderman Cane to be Mayor for 1845. The proposal was seconded by Alderman Potter and unanimously carried. On the 1st December 1848 and shortly after his release from prison, Robert Cane was again elected Mayor for 1849, on the proposal of Michael Hyland, seconded by James Walsh. An examination of the minutes of the council of the borough of Kilkenny for the period 1844 to 1858, gives some insight to the range of issues that Robert Cane passionately advocated, toiling like a giant in every plan and issue that would benefit the welfare of the citizens. These included:
- the betterment of citizens’ welfare in relation to sanitary and health conditions
- the improvement and extension of street gas lighting and safety improvements to roads and footpaths
- the provision of lands for both the construction of a Model School and for the New Lunatic Asylum
- supporting the repeal of the legislative union between Great Britain and Ireland
- supporting the petition for the abolition of “Ministers money” which required Roman Catholics to pay Church of Ireland ministers
- supporting the suppression of the Corn Laws
Robert Cane’s last council meeting was on the 7th June 1858, though he did make a written contribution to the council meeting of the 5th July, though in poor health.
During his mayoralty, he caused to be built from his own funds the castellated gatehouse at the Canal Walk. He also donated to the assembly room in the Tholsel two elaborately gilded chandeliers, both of which bear an inscription to his name.
Robert Cane died on the morning of the 17th August 1858 in his 52nd year. Prior to his death and throughout his three-week confinement, the Kilkenny Journal carried weekly progress reports on his illness, referring also to the masses and prayers offered by all for his recovery, however not expected. His funeral, to quote from the Kilkenny Journal edition of 21st August 1858 “was the biggest ever in Kilkenny. All businesses were closed. Never was there such a demonstration in the city of respect and grief, from rich and poor alike, and with such numbers as for the funeral of Robert Cane.” His coffin was carried by 8 men from his home in William St to St John’s Graveyard on the Dublin Rd. Tributes poured in from far and wide. In a motion expressing their regret, his fellow council members of the Borough of Kilkenny referred to their dearest and beloved council member as “pure and straight forward, honourable, a gentleman, a man of wisdom, no man was his actual foe or his private enemy, praised by both rich and poor”.
Robert Cane is buried in St John’s old graveyard on the Dublin Road, close to the resting place of his good friends, the Banims. Fifteen years after his death, during the mayoralty of William Kenealy, and following a public subscription, a memorial was erected over his last resting place by his fellow citizens in recognition to his devotion and service to the cause of faith and fatherland.