He was raised on a sheep farm and attended the one-room Alpine School before being sent to Portland, Oregon, where he attended the private boys" boarding school Columbia Preparatory. He graduated in 1925 with cum laude honors earning an Bachelor of Laws
They worked for the railroads until they had saved enough money to buy land. After graduation, Judge Kilkenny went on to the University of Notre Dame Law School in South Bend, Indiana. At Notre Dame, Kilkenny tried out for the football team, then coached by Knute Rockne, but a knee injury kept him from playing.
He helped manage one of the teams and was assigned by Rockne the task of acquiring four horses for the Four Horsemen photograph in 1924 due to his experience growing up on a ranch.
Upon graduation he became a practicing attorney in Pendleton, Oregon, until his appointment to the federal bench in 1959. While in private practice he served as president of the Oregon State Bar from 1943 to 1944.
He then was a trustee from 1956 to 1958 of the Oregon State Library and the University of Portland. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on July 28, 1959, and received his commission on July 30, 1959.
Upon appointment to the federal district court, Kilkenny became Oregon’s first Catholic federal judge since Oregon had become a state in 1859.
In 1969 he was nominated for a promotion to the Circuit Court by President Richard Nixon on May 12, 1969, to a new seat created by 82 Statistics 184. He was confirmed by the Senate on September 12, 1969, and received his commission on September 16, 1969. Kilkenny assumed senior status on November 1, 1971, serving in this capacity until his death.
He was replaced on both courts by Judge Alfred Goodwin.
In 1984, the federal courthouse in Pendleton, Oregon was renamed in his honor and is now the John F. Kilkenny United States. Post Office and Courthouse. Kilkenny was a student of Irish American history, and wrote Shamrocks and Shepherds: The Irish of Morrow County (1981), about the history of Irish settlement in Eastern Oregon.
Judge Kilkenny donated funds to both Blue Mountain Community College and his alma mater, Notre Dame law school. Kilkenny died in Beaverton, Oregon, at the age of 93 on February 17, 1995.
He was buried is at Olney Cemetery in Pendleton.
Kilkenny, John F. "Oral History with John F. Kilkenny." Interview conducted on June 12 and October 3, 1984, by Rick Harmon. United States. District Court of Oregon Collection, Oregon Historical Society, Portland, Oregon, 1984. Audiotape, 15 hours, 10 minutes.
(Book by Kilkenny, John F.)
Vice president Irish-American History Society, 1942—1957. Charter member Oregon History Society, 1975—1995. Trustee University Portland, Oregon State Library., Umatilla County Library.
Honorary life director History Society United States District Court Oregon, 1983. Fellow: American Bar Foundation, American College Trial Lawyers. Member: American Bar Association, Notre Dame Law Association (board directors 1952-1972), Oregon State Bar Association (president 1943-1944, Merit award 1981), American Judicature Society, University Club, Knights of Malta, Elks (life).
Married Virginia Brannock, October 14, 1931. Children: John Michael, Karen Margaret.