For a while on a bright Saturday afternoon in Dunganstown, the stars were out and shone brightly. The stars were the ordinary people of this corner of Wexford – the farmers, the teachers, the retired gardaí, the small business people, the retirees, the wives and mothers and their children.
Pat Greenan’s farmyard was like the scene at a happy village fete: all sunshine and flags fluttering on a breezy summer’s day, the smell of new paint and freshly cut grass scenting the air, and a marquee, a big white marquee, with tea and cakes and chat about what really matters – family and community.
The people moved about easily, men in their Sunday suits, women likewise dressed up and looking their best for an important occasion. The gardaí, senior officers and lower ranks, looked their best as well but were a little outclassed by the Defence Forces colour party, all spit and polish and that clipped military precision and formality that, in the instant of a command, can put shape on any occasion. A piper, Pte Finbar McCarthy, stood on a bank above the gathering and gave a perfect rendition of The Minstrel Boy, Dawning of the Day and Paddy's Green Shamrock Shore, the Derry lament of emigration. Down at the entrance to the brand new and beautifully executed OPW Kennedy Homestead Visitor Centre, the class of '63 stood in line to welcome.
Warmth and friendship
And one by one, the awaited stars arrived. First came Jean Kennedy Smith, sprightly despite her frail appearance, the legacy of 85 years. She paused and chatted and greeted the local Kennedys like the family friends they are.
Then came Caroline Kennedy-Schlossberg, her husband Edwin, and their children, Rose (25), Tatiana (23) and 20-year-old Jack – the one all the girls adore and don’t hesitate to let him know. Throughout a long day of pressure – the pressure of crowds, of everyone wanting a piece of them, of media operating frequently on an “in-your-face” basis – they exuded warmth and friendship and seemingly genuine pleasure with everyone they met.
“Just pretend, will you,” an exasperated photographer instructed Jack, wanting him to raise a cup of tea to his mouth as he chatted to someone for whom that moment would doubtless be a highlight. Jack who, since being a toddler has lived his life under an incessant media gaze, kept his cool, obliged, and resumed his interrupted conversation.
Throughout a long day, at the homestead, in the arboretum and later still on the quayside in New Ross in the intimate company of perhaps eight or ten thousand people, the Kennedys kept their charm, their poise and sprinkled a little of their magic over everyone.
A perhaps unexpected star of the day was Enda Kenny. The Taoiseach carried himself with purpose throughout. And standing before a military colour party at the homestead, and again at the arboretum, as the Taoiseach's Salute was played, he performed his formal duties with the dignity his office demands – and the public expects.
But on show also was the informal Enda Kenny, the relaxed, casual Taoiseach whose quips and mannerisms sometimes seems out of place. Not on this occasion. This was formal for sure, the marking of President John F Kennedy’s visit 50 years ago and the dark shadow of what happened five months later, but it was also an intimate family occasion.
As local TD and Minister of State for Defence Paul Keogh spoke from the podium at the homestead, noting that Caroline had been there in Dunganstown with her father 50 years ago, Kenny, sitting beside her, turned and patted her knee. It was a gesture an uncle might bestow on a niece. She turned to him and smiled and appreciatively. “Thank you Kennedy family,” said Keogh, “for never forgetting Ireland.”
“We treasure our relationship with Ireland,” said Caroline when her turn came to speak. “Our story is more than a journey. It is a testament to the power of hope.”
When it was the Taoiseach’s turn, he rose to it. In a speech that was both warm and weighty, poignantly dwelling on the past but rousing also about the challenges facing Ireland, he turned to her and said: “You are truly testament to the power of a good family, despite all the burdens you have borne.”
Kenny spoke of the appeal of the Kennedy story, of how the family brought with them "excitement, possibility, hope". The Kennedys were "extraordinary people from this ordinary homestead who swapped the nightmare of Irish emigration for the American dream".
“This home was once the world for an earlier generation of Kennedys. The private world that gave the public world the Kennedys. It is here the Kennedy children were conceived, born and reared. It’s here the Kennedy stories were told. Memories made. Songs sung.
“This is your place. A place you are happy to share.”
It wasn’t mawkish or sentimental. It sounded right.
The crowd approved. Just as they did down at the quay when Kenny, striding along the boardwalk in the wake of the Kennedys to the place of the Eternal Emigrants flame about to be lit, received the cheers and applause.
As Special Olympians carried a flaming torch, lit five days earlier at the Kennedy grave in Arlington Cemetery in Virginia, towards the about to be lit eternal flame for emigrants in front of the Dunbrody replica Famine ship, Michael Flatley slightly lost the run of the himself.
It was, he told the crowd, "the flame of hope, love, honour and dignity. . . the flame that says if we stand together we cannot be defeated". They seemed unmoved. But when Jean Kennedy Smith, Caroline Kennedy and the Taoiseach jointly lit the emigrant flame, it was Kenny's comments that seemed to strike the right note. The emigrant flame now on the New Ross quayside was, he said, "a symbol of the affection we have for our diaspora and that they are our family".