The entire area was granted to the English scientist, Sir William Petty by Oliver Cromwell as part payment for completing the mapping of Ireland, the Down Survey in 1656. He laid out the modern town circa 1670. Like William Petty, a previous surveyor of Ireland (1584), Sir Valentine Browne, ancestor of the Earl of Kenmare was granted some lands in County Kerry during the resulting plantation, the Munster Plantation.
The three main streets that form a triangle in the centre of the town are called Main Street (originally William Street, after Sir William, 1st. Marquis of Lansdowne), Henry Street (originally Sound Road), after the son of William the 1st. Marquis and Shelbourne Street (Henry Petty became the first Earl of Shelburne). This name was also later applied to Shelbourne Road in Dublin.
However, the area has more ancient roots. One of the largest stone circles in the south-west of Ireland is close to the town, and shows occupation in the area going back to the Bronze Age (2,200–500 B.C), when it was constructed. The circle has 15 stones around the circumference with a boulder dolmen in the centre.
Vikings are said to have raided the area around the town which at that time was called Ceann Mhara, which means "head of the sea" in Irish.
The convent in the town, the Poor Clare Sisters, was founded in 1861 when five nuns including Sister Mary Frances Cusack, who was also an author and publisher of many books, moved to Kenmare from their convent in Newry, County Down. Under the guidance of Mother Abbess O'Hagan in 1864 a lace-working industry was established and Kenmare lace became noted worldwide.
A suspension bridge, which is claimed to be the first in Ireland, over the Kenmare River was opened in 1841 and served the community till 1932 when it was replaced by a new concrete bridge.
The town has been a winner in the Irish Tidy Towns Competition in 2013, 2000 and was a runner-up in 2003 and 2008.
The town library building is now home to the Carnegie Arts Centre and theatre, which plays host to the local drama group and a number of travelling productions each year, as well as regular music and comedy nights.
The Church of Ireland church of St Patrick celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2008.
The Heritage Centre
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