John McKenna (1837-1911)

“Let all things be done with charity.” 1 Corinthians 16:14

John McKenna was a charitable man. His descendants tell how he “had a large hardware shop with an archway entry into the yard at the back, he had men delivering goods on large carts pulled by horses, he sent hundred weight bags of potatoes, flour, yellow meal, and other things to our grandmother Lizzie Armstrong (who baked a stone of flour at a time) to the Donegal

road house … He kept two houses for men who were homeless and only asked that they listened to the preaching of gods word on Sunday nights in the houses” (See transcription of letter sent to Susan Dutson, dated 7 Nov 2012).

For a profession, John was a master painter and had his business on King Street in the heart of Belfast. In the letter referenced above, one of his descendants wrote, “Our great grandfather, John Mckenna, was a master painter who did all the gold gilding on the ship Titanic in the state room.” In the 1910 Belfast Street Directory, the business would be known as A. & H. McKenna painters and decorators, 72 King Street, named after his sons Alexander and Hugh.

According to the 1901 and 1911 censuses, John was born in County Tyrone. Based on the 1852 Christ Church Census, he was born in 1837. By the time he was 15 years old, he was living in Belfast and was working as a millworker. In July of 1858, he married Elizabeth Shanks in the St. Anne’s (Church of Ireland) parish church. Both John and Elizabeth and their fathers were listed as labourers. But by 1861, on the birth record for their daughter Elizabeth, John was listed as a “Painter”, and would be listed as a “Painter”, “House Painter” or “Master Painter” the rest of his life. His son’s John, Alexander and Hugh would also be regularly identified as “Painters”.

Early in their marriage John and Elizabeth lived on College Street West, but by 1871, were living on Blackstaff Road, which later became known as Donegall Road. By 1888, their business and primary residence seems to have been on King Street, in the heart of Belfast.

John and Elizabeth had 7 children, 2 of which died in infancy. John, their eldest son died at the age of 25, after being married for less than 3 years and giving birth to one son. The other 4 lived to be at least 65 years old.

Elizabeth McKenna and Hugh Armstrong -

Elizabeth and Hugh married in 1878. Hugh’s father, John Armstrong was a Schoolmaster, as was his father before him. They had 14 children, of which, at least 4 died before the age of 5 years old.

Their oldest child was John James McCleery Armstrong. His middle name, McCleery, was his mother’s maiden name. John married Elizabeth Ward in 1914 and their oldest son, John Ward Armstrong, became the Arch-bishop of Armagh in the Church of Ireland. In John Ward Armstrong’s history, it says that John James McCleery Armstrong was organist of St Simon's parish church in Belfast.

While there is much yet to be discovered about John McKenna and Elizabeth Shanks, it is apparent that the embraced their Christian faith and the principle of charity.