The Homecoming: The Kennedy Clan’s Irish Gathering for the JFK50

Jean Kennedy Smith, Enda Kenny and Caroline Kennedy light the eternal Emigrant Flame. Photo: Honora Harty.

By Enda Cullen, Contributor
July 3, 2013

During John F Kennedy’s brief (four minutes) but powerful speech to the people of New Ross in 1963 he referred to his great grandfather, Patrick, who left the area in 1849 with nothing but “a strong religious faith and a strong desire for liberty”.

A powerful illustration of how JFK adhered to his ancestor’s faith is his rosary beads on display in the newly opened Kennedy Homestead museum at Dunganstown.  These are the beads that were on his person the day he died. At the JFK50 weekend, June 21 – 23 2013, the theme of faith was evident from the various members of his family who addressed the large crowds.

This Homecoming must have been cathartic for the Kennedy family as they enjoyed the unconditional affection that Ireland has for the Kennedys and indeed Irish America. However, it is a two way street. JFK’s visit to Ireland in 1963 was a renaissance for an Ireland of poverty and general low self esteem. To see the tanned and glamorous leader of the Free World come and eulogize his Irish antecedents raised the bar for many young people. If an Irishman could rise to be the most powerful man in the world, couldn’t we all improve our aspirations? In many ways that has been fulfilled as we now export highly educated graduates all over the world, whereas before 1963 our main export was young men and women for the construction and service industries.

The weekend in New Ross began with The Kennedy Gala Homecoming Dinner, organized by Betti-Marie Burger-Smit the general manager of the Brandon House Hotel & Spa. The dining room was beautifully adorned with flowers by local florist Emma McHale, the food was perfect, and the speeches were meaningful, with Jean Kennedy Smith and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend reaffirming the importance of their family strong links with Ireland. Irish America’s own Patricia Harty spoke with passion of the strength, resilience and courage of all the Kennedy women.

Patricia went on to induct Judy Collins into the Irish America Hall of Fame. Judy then entertained us with a speech peppered with song, a cappella. She was followed by Ronan Tynan, tenor and the American Spiritualist Ensemble, who judging from their reception will be back in Ireland.

On Saturday June 22 approximately 300 people attended the official opening of the new Kennedy Homestead Visitor Center in nearby Dunganstown – the same homestead Kennedy visited in 1963, freshly renovated for visitors and expanded into a moving and unique museum experience that celebrates, above all else, family.

Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg told us with passion and pride of her father’s and her family’s love for Ireland and declared that relationships had never been better between Ireland and the United States.

The opening of the Visitor Center took place with Taoiseach Enda Kenny forgoing the giant scissors on offer for an ordinary sized pair. No doubt he was aware of the mileage that would have made with journalists as his government enforces strict austerity.

Of all the JFK memorials and exhibitions this is the one place that I would strongly urge people to visit.  The current occupier of the Kennedy Homestead, and working farm, is Kennedy cousin Patrick Grennan, who possesses JFK’s languid warmth and personality. On a previous visit he took time out to talk to my wife and me and was genuinely interested in speaking with us.

Seamus Heaney, Nobel Prize winner, spoke after Kiley Kennedy and Grace Kennedy Allen unveiled a bust of of their grandfather Ted Kennedy. It was then onto a recreation of the 1963 cup of tea with the Kennedy Homestead yard set up with tea, cake and ham sandwiches. Jack Kennedy Schlossberg’s charm was aptly demonstrated when an exasperated photographer who wanted a picture of Jack drinking tea said “just pretend.”  Jack calmly did so and carried on his conversation with one of his Irish cousins.

On a personal note I was looking at a poster of JFK with his George Bernard Shaw quotation “Other people, he said see things and say Why? But I dream things that never were – and I say Why not?” when Kathleen Kennedy Townsend came up and told me that when her father, Bobby, was campaigning for president he would quote GBS and that was the signal for the Press Corps to board the buses as he was about to finish!
We were then bussed to the Kennedy Arboretum for a re-dedication and tree planting ceremony.

Another highlight of the day in New Ross was the arrival at the quayside of a flame, lit on the previous Tuesday at the eternal flame on the assassinated president’s grave in Arlington Cemetery in Virginia.
It was disembarked from the LE Orla by JFK’s sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, former US ambassador to Ireland, and given to Enda Kenny.  He in turn presented it to a group of Special Olympians who carried it to a new feature in front of the Dunbrody famine ship and emigration history center. Enda Kenny, Jean Kennedy Smith and Caroline Kennedy then lit New Ross’s very own Kennedy eternal flame.

It was from this very quayside that Patrick Kennedy left Ireland for Liverpool and ultimately the United States.

The events were hosted by former RTE journalist Anne Doyle and rugby commentator George Hook. The tributes flowed before JFK’s grandson, Jack Kennedy Schlossberg, spoke on behalf of his family.

“We’ve been told over and over that America is no longer the great country it was when my grandfather was president. But if we feel, even for a minute, that the solutions to the problems that confront us are beyond our reach … we must remember Ireland.”

The evening was drawn to a close with a performance of Amazing Grace by Judy Collins.

New Ross certainly put its best foot forward for the weekend.  It is a welcoming town and as the medieval poem written in French by Friar Michael “Bernardi” of Kyldare about New Ross in the year 1265 proclaims:

“For this is the best free town to be found in continent or island
And every stranger finds a welcome and is received with great joy;
He can buy and sell freely and no one will ask him for anything.
To go I commend the town and all who live within it.
Amen. Amen. Amen”

More photos from the Kennedy Homecoming – scroll over for captions:


CBS’s coverage of the anniversary:

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