Famine to feast – living the dream
Despised for being Irish, the Kennedys overcame the snooty Yankee ruling class to claim the highest office in the land
Joe Kennedy with his family when he was US ambassador in London.
The Kennedys at their home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, on November 9th, the night after John F Kennedy won the 1960 US presidential election. Sitting, from left, Eunice Shriver, Rose Kennedy, Joseph Kennedy , Jacqueline Kennedy (head turned away from camera), and Ted Kennedy. Back row, from left, Ethel Kennedy, Stephen Smith, Jean Smith, John F. Kennedy, Robert F Kennedy, Pat Lawford, Sargent Shriver, Joan Kennedy and Peter Lawford
He left for Boston, and it was a fortuitous decision. Within a half century, his grandson Joe Kennedy had graduated from Harvard University and began amassing a fortune, part of which would be used to launch the audacious idea of pushing his son Jack forward as a candidate for the presidency of the United States.
From famine to feast in two generations. The Kennedy story is an immigrant’s story, and it is an Irish story, but it is essentially an American one, where the acquisition of education and money, and the lack of a stratified class system, means anything is possible.
When Patrick Kennedy arrived in Boston, the Irish were uniformly despised as uneducated, unwashed and, worst of all, unchurched, or at least in the wrong church, because they were Catholic, and at the time Boston as a city and America as a nation were thoroughly Protestant.
But it was the sudden diversification of the country, first by the Irish in the years after the Famine, then the Italians and Eastern Europeans, that made the Kennedys seem no different than so many other new Americans. Their sense of difference dissipated. They were able to blend in and assimilate and rise.
The sting of rejection, however, never left old Joe Kennedy. When the family was turned down membership at the Brahmin, snooty Cohasset Golf Club on Boston’s south shore, Joe Kennedy simply decamped for Hyannis Port on Cape Cod, enjoying the wonders of the links course there, and establishing what would come to be known as the Kennedy Compound.
All the while, old Joe Kennedy, who would climb to become US ambassador to London, plotted his revenge against the judgmental Yankee ruling class who looked down their noses at him and other ethnic Americans. His revenge would be helping to elect his son Jack to the highest seat in the land.
Like his brother Joe Kennedy jr, who perished in the second World War when his bomber exploded, Jack Kennedy was a war hero before he became a politician, and no doubt that helped him past the many Americans who would never consider voting for a Catholic for president.
Jack Kennedy didn’t get a chance to finish his first term before he was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, not long after he made a triumphant return to Ireland and to the place in Wexford that Patrick Kennedy left all those years before. But even to this day, his time in the White House is regarded by many, perhaps through rose-coloured glasses, as the last time the United States was full of such idealism and a belief that things would get better.
His brother Bobby tried to follow in his footsteps, and ran for president in 1968 on the promise of ending the war in Vietnam. An assassin’s bullet ended that dream.
It then fell to the youngest brother, Teddy, to pick up the mantle. He was the least equipped of any of the brothers to do so, and when he drove off a bridge in Chappaquiddick in 1969, killing a woman who was a passenger in his car, it seemed Ted Kennedy’s political career was over.