“I’m telling you,” said the young female garda to the man standing next to her, “the town has never looked so good.”
And it was true. The pretty east Limerick village of Bruff had dusted itself down, spruced itself up (the smell of fresh paint and newly cut grass hung in the sunny afternoon air) and turned its very best face to the world which, for this one fine day, was the Kennedy family who visiting Ireland to mark the 50th anniversary of John F Kennedy’s 1963 visit to Ireland.
"This is our gig," Paul Dennehy of the Bruff Heritage Group, confided to an out-of-town photographer. Dublin had had its moment; New Ross could wait a while longer. This was going to be Bruff's big day. And indeed it was.
The church of St Peter and St Paul was packed. And those who didn't get in, thronged the entrance, hoping to get close to the visitors.
Emerging from the sacristy after about 20 minutes of examining the Fitzgerald family records, Caroline Kennedy and her cousin Sydney Lawford, were followed by Caroline and Edwin Schlossberg’s three children – Jack, Rose and Tatiana.
Tom Fitzgerald, the man whose descendants through marriage gave the Kennedys the “F” in their name, was born in Bruff in 1823, six years before St Peter and St Paul’s Church was built. Canon Costello told the congregation that Bruff remembered him today and welcomed home his descendants but remembered also “all those who lost their lives on the high seas trying to get to the land of hope in coffin ships”.
The Kennedys' values were evident in the prayers of the faithful, said by four local people and Caroline's children. They were for public servants and all who work for the common good; for those who travel and those who cannot because they are jailed for their beliefs; for world peace and the sick and aged; for the deceased of the Fitzgerald and Kennedy families (Jack); for those who have emigrated recently in search of work (Rose); and that God's gifts are used wisely (Tatiana).
The weight of family history and the public's insatiable appetite for more and more episodes of the Kennedy story was evident in the tiny, neat riverside park opposite the former Church of Ireland church and now heritage centre. Jack (20), handsome and with jet black hair, stood watching his mother and aunt plant two rowan, or mountain ash, trees. "The next president," muttered one local to his friend beside him.
Caroline had time and a few words for everyone seeking them – and most were. Equally generous was Sid and the children, and the women’s husbands, Peter and Edwin; stars and stripes fluttered along Main Street, the image of JFK in many a window. . .
Tatiana (24), radiantly pretty, bolted from the throng and onto the low wall at the church and started taking pictures of the photographers.
Inside the former Bruff Courthouse, now rededicated to the memory of Tom Fitzgerald, Attorney General Marie Whelan told of the building’s place in legal history.
Caroline addressed the patiently waiting crowd outside. She exuded that familiar and seemingly effortless Kennedy charm. The smile was real, the Kennedy confidence strongly evident.
She spoke of the Fitzgeralds, of her grandmother, the redoubtable Rose, an ever-present force in her father, aunt’s and uncle’s lives as well as in her own. “Grandma always had it that the Fitzgeralds were the better half of the family,” she said smiling. And they loved it. She might not say quite the same today in New Ross . . .