Born in Yorkshire, England, Kirby immigrated with his parents to the United States in 1832, and then to Canada in 1839, where after visiting Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec City, he settled in Niagara, Ontario, where his house still stands.
Kirby practised as a tanner until his marriage with Eliza Madeline Whitmore, with whom he had three children (one of whom died in infancy.) For more than twenty years, Kirby was the editor of the Niagara Mail (1850–1871) whom he purchased from the founder in 1850. From 1871–1895, he was a collector of customs at Niagara, and in 1883, he became a charter member of the Royal Society of Canada. He died at Niagara on 23 June 1906.