Fr Joseph Leonard’s importance to Kennedys recalled by Liam Cosgrave

Former taoiseach was good friend of priest in his later years

 Fr Joseph Leonard, Fr William Purcell and  John F Kennedy at All Hallows College in September 1955.

Fr Joseph Leonard, Fr William Purcell and John F Kennedy at All Hallows College in September 1955.


The importance of Fr Joseph Leonard in the life of the Kennedys was recalled by former taoiseach Liam Cosgrave in an interview with The Irish Times last year about president John F Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in 1963.

Mr Cosgrave, who was an opposition TD at the time, was invited to a reception at Iveagh House when he was approached by the US president, whom he had met when he was in Ireland in 1955 with Jackie.

“I remember coming around the door into a room and he [Kennedy] said to me: ‘How can I get in touch with Fr Leonard?’ I told his aides that if they got on to All Hallows College they would locate him.”

The friendship between Fr Leonard and Jacqueline Bouvier developed during a visit she paid to Ireland. Fr Leonard had been vice-principal of St Mary’s College at Strawberry Hill outside London. He got to know a rich American named Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis, an expert on the life and works of 18th century British prime minister Robert Walpole.

When Fr Leonard returned to Ireland, Lewis “sent him friends they knew he would enjoy, Jackie Bouvier among them”, according to David McCullagh’s biography of John A Costello The Reluctant Taoiseach. On their first visit to Ireland, Fr Leonard took Jackie and her stepbrother Yusha Auchincloss to the Taoiseach’s office in Government Buildings to meet Costello, with whom he was on close terms.

When Jack Kennedy, by then a senator, and Jackie visited Ireland together in 1955, the then minister for external affairs, Liam Cosgrave, arranged a lunch for them in Iveagh House. The couple stayed in the Shelbourne Hotel but Kennedy was in agony with back pain from a war injury. Cosgrave changed the venue to make it easier on the senator, so the lunch took place in the hotel.

According to The Reluctant Taoiseach, Declan Costello found Kennedy to be “very agreeable, highly intelligent and anxious to learn”. In 1966 Jackie told John A Costello she had “never forgotten you, Declan and Joan’s kindness to us.”

Costello snr got to know Fr Leonard when the priest returned to Dublin to stay in semi-retirement at All Hallows in 1939. The friendship quickly developed into an important part of both men’s lives. Most Sunday afternoons Costello took the priest for a drive in the Dublin mountains.

A mutual friend said after the priest’s death the drives “meant everything to him”. After the priest’s death Costello wrote warmly of “a valued and rewarding friendship with a man older and wiser than myself”.