From New Ross to the White House: The Kennedy legacy linking Ireland and the US
From Whence I Came: the Kennedy Legacy, Ireland and America is launched today
President Kennedy addresses the people of New Ross, Co Wexford, in 1963. Photograph: Robert Knudsen, White House/John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston
In October 1848, a young man of 25 years of age walked five miles from Dunganstown in rural Co Wexford to the port of New Ross. It was a walk this young man had made many times before, but he knew he would never make it again.
The young man had chosen to emigrate and leave behind an Ireland that was experiencing the worst trauma any nation can endure – Famine. His name was Patrick Kennedy and the Ireland he left behind saw, over a short number of years, one million of its people die from hunger and another million leave to build new lives elsewhere.
I have often wondered what went through Patrick Kennedy’s mind, as he sailed out from New Ross, joining that mass exodus from an Irish nation stricken by starvation, disease and death.
His emigrant’s journey is the starting point for a new book I have co-edited, along with Prof Donnacha Ó Beacháin, entitled From Whence I Came, The Kennedy Legacy, Ireland and America. It is, perhaps, fitting that the book will be officially launched today [March 15th] by the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, as part of his virtual programme of events to mark St Patrick’s Day.
The presidency of Joe Biden is already setting a course for a renewed and positive focus in US-Irish relations. With the new occupant of the White House taking such a genuine pride in his Irish heritage, it is worth recalling that the very special relationship that exists between our two nations has its foundation in the courage and perseverance of young Irish emigrants, like Patrick Kennedy, and their hopes of a better life in the New World.
On St Patrick’s Day, America turns green in celebration of its huge Irish diaspora. But it wasn’t always thus. When Patrick Kennedy disembarked at Noodle’s Island, East Boston, on April 28th, 1849, he was part of an emigrant class, which was despised by many Americans for their alien religion, their strange language and their readiness, born out of desperation, to work for low wages.
Before emigrating, Patrick Kennedy had been employed by Cherry Brothers Brewery in New Ross and the skills that he learned there stood to him in the United States. He found employment as a cooper at Daniel Francis’s on Sumner Street, Boston, where he made beer and whiskey barrels. Patrick Kennedy did his best to provide for the young family he started in the United States, having married another Wexford emigrant, Bridget Murphy, only five months after arriving in America.
But Patrick’s American dream of greater opportunity and prosperity eluded him in his lifetime. The poverty that he thought he had fled from in leaving Ireland were never far away in the immigrant tenements of east Boston. Adult life expectancy was devastatingly low. According to one researcher’s work, the average Irishman who immigrated to America only survived 14 years after he came ashore. Even by that grim statistic, Patrick Kennedy fared badly. He died almost destitute, aged just 35, less than a decade after he first set foot on American soil. Patrick Kennedy’s death occurred on November 22nd, 1858 – exactly 105 years to the day when the entire world would be stunned by the murder of his great-grandson, the 35th president of the United States of America.
I am proud that former congressman Joe Kennedy III – a grandnephew of president John F Kennedy and senator Ted Kennedy and a grandson of Bobby Kennedy – will join today’s book launch to discuss, alongside the Taoiseach, ambassador Samantha Power and congressman Richie Neal, the relevance of the Kennedy legacy in a new era.
America has endured four years of painful discord during the Trump presidency. When I saw on my TV screen the shocking assault on the US Capitol by an inflamed mob on January 6th, I could not help but think that this was in stark contrast to Bobby Kennedy’s brilliant words from 1968: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another; and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country.”
In her contribution to this book, Kerry Kennedy, Bobby’s daughter, reflects on the values advocated by her father and the wider Kennedy legacy. She maintains that there is “a direct line” between her family’s Irish heritage and the commitment of John, Bobby and Ted Kennedy “to stand up to oppression and to seek, to strive, to create a better world”. Reflecting on Patrick Kennedy’s journey from a famine-devastated Ireland, Kerry Kennedy contends that this strong and enduring connection with the place from whence the Kennedys came has helped to shape their political leanings.
Arguably no set of political brothers have inspired more people around the globe than John, Bobby and Ted Kennedy. Even today, for a new generation who have come of age in the years after their respective deaths, the Kennedy legacy has an enduring appeal.
In their ancestral home of New Ross, every year, international academics and political figures, media personalities and other interested parties gather to reflect on the Kennedy family’s record of public service and to explore broader themes of global politics. Each of the chapters in this book have their origins in papers delivered at the Kennedy Summer School, New Ross, which was founded in 2012 by Willie Keilthy, Sean Reidy and the late Noel Whelan.
On his final day in Ireland, John Fitzgerald Kennedy pledged to “come back in the springtime.” While tragedy intervened, the Kennedy legacy lives on. The words still have resonance, the hold on our imagination remains strong and the emigrant flame still burns.
Dr Brian Murphy lectures in Technological University Dublin. From Whence I Came: The Kennedy Legacy, Ireland and America, edited by Brian Murphy and Donnacha Ó Beacháin, is available from Merrion Press. A public event will be hosted online today at 6pm in Ireland to celebrate the launch of the new book From Whence I Came: the Kennedy Legacy, Ireland and America. Those interested in joining the event can register to attend via the Edward M Kennedy Institute for the United States website