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

In 1848, Patrick Kennedy surveyed the moonscape that was Dunganstown, County Wexford. He regarded both the dead potatoes and his dead neighbours and concluded it was time to leave those shores.

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.

Instead, Ted Kennedy fashioned himself a new Camelot, becoming one of the most celebrated senators in US history. He championed civil rights, tolerance of immigrants, he fought for the mentally and developmentally disabled, the poor and the marginalised. And when he died in 2009, even right-wing Republican senators like Orrin Hatch of Utah cried for him, because they admired him.

“He was like my brother,” Hatch told me at Ted Kennedy’s wake in the library named for his brother, the assassinated president. “Teddy never forgot where he came from.”

Of course, he came from enormous wealth and privilege. But that wasn’t what Hatch was talking about. He was talking about the immigrant stock, the outsider, the poor who became rich. The American immigrant story.

Ted Kennedy would sometimes bring me to The Hideaway, his spacious lounge in the Capitol. The walls were lined with all things Irish. Among the family portraits was that of his grandfather, John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, the first Irish Catholic elected to the US House of Representatives from New England.

There was one of those old fashioned black-and-white road signs over the fireplace, indicating that Lough Gur, the ancient lakeside settlement in County Limerick, was just 1½ miles away. Inside The Hideway, Ireland always felt that close.

There was a chess set, the pieces of which are caricatures of various political figures from Northern Ireland. Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams are knights. Provos and RUC men serve as pawns.

If some might view the furnishings of The Hideaway as a bit sentimental, the Kennedy political consciousness was informed by a sense of Irishness, of being seen as an outsider, of battling discrimination. It was a consciousness informed by recognising that whatever hateful, prejudicial thing said about the new immigrant group was once said about the Irish.

The Kennedys had their foibles. Jack was a womaniser. Bobby could be vindictive. Teddy sometimes drank too much. But despite great wealth, their legislative records, both on social issues and social justice, put them in the corner of working people, ordinary people.

Their children, for the most part, didn’t jump at public life. They grew up much like the children of the British aristocracy, their most intimate moments spied on for sport, their mistakes magnified, their wealth not shielding them for the vagaries of life. And too many of them died young or unhappy.

The Kennedy legacy is a mixed one. They are, for some, particularly those on the right wing of the political spectrum, the object of derision, dismissed as limousine liberals.

But many Americans, and certainly most people in Boston and Massachusetts and even Washington, regard them as other generations did the Roosevelts, as rich people who never forgot that their ancestors were poor people.

The Famine landscape of Dunganstown was never completely overshadowed by the marble and the polished wood of Georgetown.

Kevin Cullen is a columnist for The Boston Globe

Read More