A facelift for the family farm
A collective effort inspired by JFK’s fourth cousin, Patrick Grennan, has ensured that a visitor centre will be opened at the old Kennedy homestead
Patrick Kennedy (left), son of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, and Patrick Grennan, fourth cousin of President John F Kennedy,his wife Siobhan and children Eanna and Donagh, at the Kennedy Homestead and Visitor Centre, Dunganstown, New Ross, Co Wexford. Photograph: Eric Luke
Jackie Kennedy and her children visit their Dunganstown relatives in 1967.
Early one Sunday morning last month, Patrick Kennedy, son of the late Ted Kennedy and himself a former US congressman, travelled straight from Dublin airport to the Kennedy Homestead at Dunganstown, Co Wexford, where a photocall had been arranged to publicise the imminent opening of a new visitor centre.
Like all the Kennedys, Patrick has an acute sense of media. He posed affably and obligingly with his fourth cousin Patrick Grennan, Siobhan Grennan and their young boys for as long as the photographers wanted.
As the small group moved on to another part of the homestead, Patrick Kennedy fell behind. Realising he was missing we looked back – across that small courtyard where the iconic tea party for President John F Kennedy was held in 1963 – and saw Patrick Kennedy standing quietly alone within the small farmhouse where his great-great grandfather and namesake was born in 1828. He was having a private moment with his family’s Famine-time heritage.
For the Kennedy family, Dunganstown is not a museum piece; it is the starting point for their own extraordinary family story.
Although the various events being held in New Ross and Dunganstown this month will be high-profile public commemorations of what the Kennedy presidency and the Kennedy family story have meant to a generation of Irish people, they are also deeply personal to the members of the Kennedy family themselves.
The history of the return journey made by Jack Kennedy three generations later as president of the United States is etched as positively on the collective Kennedy family consciousness as it is on the consciousness of those in Wexford who participated and those throughout Ireland who watched it through the new medium of television.
“Welcome home, Jack” were the words with which Mary Ryan greeted her second cousin Jack Kennedy when he walked through the gate at Dunganstown as president.
This summer more than 40 members of the extended Kennedy family from four generations will get the same welcome when they come through the same gate to mark the official opening of the new visitor centre.
That this has come to pass is due in no small part to the dogged persistence of Patrick Grennan. He opened an ad-hoc exhibition in converted sheds on the courtyard in 1999 and has since managed to juggle family and farming commitments while greeting a steady flow of visitors fascinated by the Kennedy story.
It was on foot of his efforts and those of the then local deputy Sean Connick that Brian Lenihan as minister for finance announced in his budget speech in December 2009 that the Office of Public Works would construct a purpose-built visitor centre at Dunganstown.
A clear view on how precisely this could be done took some time to evolve and when the pressures on public finances intensified, the prospects of the visitor centre being built at all seemed remote at times. However, the current Government, and Minister of State at the Office of Public Works Brian Hayes in particular, came to appreciate not only the tourism and heritage potential of the new development at Dunganstown but also the historical and diplomatic significance that would attach to opening it in time for the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s visit.
The collective efforts of the OPW, Wexford County Council and the JFK Trust in New Ross mean this is now happening. Throughout the process the Kennedy family in America have consistently supported Patrick Grennan’s efforts to protect and celebrate the family legacy back in Ireland.
Noel Whelan is chairman of the Kennedy Homestead Committee