Kerry and the non-existent Irish connection

 

US: Who is John Kerry, the man US Democrats will choose next week to run for the White House? Conor O'Clery has been exploring his background

For most of his life, people assumed John Kerry was Irish-American because of his name and his religion. He knew he was not, that his father's family had come from a part of Europe that was then in Austria but is now in the Czech Republic.

But it wasn't until January 2003 that he learned in a meeting with Boston Globe reporters who had done some genealogical research that his paternal grandfather, Frederick Kerry, was Jewish. His grandfather was born Fritz Kohn in Bennisch, a town now known as Horni Benesov, to a family of brewers and shoemakers.

In 1901 he and his wife Ida Löwe converted to Roman Catholicism and changed their name to Kerry, presumably to escape anti-Semitism, then four years later emigrated to America. Family legend has it that the name Kerry was chosen by dropping a pencil on a map which pointed to Co Kerry in Ireland, though Kerry is apparently not unknown as a surname in Austria.

John Kerry also knew that his grandfather had moved first to Chicago and then to Boston and that he had prospered as a shoe dealer before committing suicide over financial troubles. But he had not known until told by the reporters how he met his end: by shooting himself in the washroom of the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston on November 23rd, 1921.

Like Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby, Frederick Kerry had hidden his Jewish ancestry in Boston and pretended to be what he was not. But he never tried to pass himself off as Irish in the heavily Irish-American city. He identified instead with old-money society of Boston, and his descendants would carry this further.

When he took his life, he left behind a family which included his son, Richard, then just six. Richard went to Yale and later married Rosemary Forbes, daughter of James Grant Forbes and Margaret Winthrop, a couple who bore the names of two of the great Brahmin families of New England. He met Rosemary Forbes at her father's summer home, an estate he bought at Saint Briac in Brittany.

Richard Kerry served in the army and later the couple moved to Denver, Colorado. There John Forbes Kerry was born on December 11th, 1943. The family moved soon afterwards to Boston, and then to Washington and Berlin as John Kerry's father pursued a diplomatic career, before settling back in Boston.

As a result, John Kerry spent much of his young life in boarding schools in Europe and America, eventually graduating from St Paul's Catholic school in Concord, New Hampshire. He, too, went to Yale where his intellect and leadership qualities made him an automatic choice for the elite Skull and Bones society. His political ambitions were so obvious that some Yale "fellows" made the sounds of Hail to the Chief when he appeared.

John Kerry identified totally with his great hero, the first Irish-American president, John F. Kennedy, with whom he shared the same initials and, in the eyes of associates and some family members, an Irish background.

Mr Kerry may have imagined himself there was an Irish connection. Certainly it was an asset when he stood for election in Massachusetts after his return from Vietnam and a decade as a prosecutor in Boston. There is evidence he claimed Irish ancestry, which he now disputes. The Boston Globe quoted him on March 6th, 1984, as saying: "As some of you may know, I am part-English and part-Irish. And when my Kerry ancestors first came over to Massachusetts from the old country to find work in the New World, it was my English ancestors who refused to hire them." However, a Kerry spokesman said that the quote was from a draft text written by an aide and not delivered.

Mr Kerry got a boost from the Irish-American vote in his first Senate bid that same year, not by pretending to be Irish but because he was better on Irish issues than his main rival for the Democratic nomination. This was James Shannon, an Irish-American congressman who was unsympathetic to Irish republican support groups.

Opposition to Mr Shannon came to a head at a closed meeting of 30 or so Irish-American activists in Brookline, called initially to discuss how to defeat the expected Republican Senate candidate, former US ambassador to London Elliot Richardson. There Leo Cooney, state head of the Irish National Caucus, the Washington-based lobby group run by Father Seán McManus, spoke out against Mr Shannon for his alleged pro-British stance, and the meeting turned against him, according to a participant.

In the emotional aftermath of the hunger strikes in Northern Ireland, the word went out to stop Mr Shannon. The Irish National Caucus organised a state-wide direct mail campaign against him. Hecklers followed him when he turned up looking for votes at the Salem Irish festival, and in Springfield, Democrat supporters turned out with "Up Kerry" T-shirts.

Mr Kerry, little known to Irish activists, also secured the support of Boston's Irish-American mayor Raymond Flynn, whom he had helped get elected the year before. Mr Flynn, who admired Mr Kerry's war record, brought him to some of Boston's Irish bars, like the Éire Pub in Dorchester, and as the former mayor later recalled, "the word got around that Kerry was trying to meet people where they actually gather..."

Kerry won the Democratic primary with a margin of 3 per cent, 24,000 votes out of 800,000 cast, and went on easily to defeat his Republican opponent Raymond Shamie - who had beaten Mr Richardson in the Republican primary.

When he arrived on Capitol Hill everyone assumed Mr Kerry was another Massachusetts Irish-American politician. In a speech which he placed on the Senate record in 1986, he said: "For those of us who are fortunate to share an Irish ancestry, we take great pride in the contributions (of) Irish-Americans." Mr Kerry's office said it was prepared by an aide and not read by the senator, a common practice on Capitol Hill.

There is no record since then of Mr Kerry claiming Irish ancestry. He turned down several invitations to be listed as one of the top Irish 100 by Irish America magazine, an honour that Bill Clinton accepted.

He did try to have it both ways, though. In 1993, when television host John McLaughlin asked Mr Kerry if he had Irish ancestry, the senator responded: "No. I'm a mixture." McLaughlin then asked: "Well, your father's Irish. Right?" and Mr Kerry answered "No. My father came from Austria." But when McLaughlin pressed him, saying "Does your father have some Irish in him?" Kerry answered: "I don't know the answer to that. We're looking and I don't know."

On January 15th, 1994, he was one of only three senators to join Edward Kennedy in writing to Mr Clinton urging a visa for Gerry Adams. The Boston Herald reported that Mr Clinton was heavily lobbied on the issue "by several prominent Irish-American political figures, including Massachusetts Senators Edward Kennedy and John Kerry..."

No Boston newspaper would make that mistake now, especially after Mr Kerry's background was detailed exhaustively in the Boston Globe and in a biography, John F Kerry, by Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish, Brian Mooney and Nina Easton.

After it all came out, Mr Kerry turned up at the annual St Patrick's Day roast of local politicians in South Boston, where Massachusetts House Speaker Thomas Finneran listed the top 10 reasons why people suspected Mr Kerry was Jewish. Among them, he said, was that his soda bread always came out flat, he ate his corned beef on a bagel, and he went to Mass on a Saturday.

But Kerry had the last laugh when he and Representative Stephen Lynch brought the house down by singing "If you're Yiddish, come into the parlour/There's a 'mazel tov' for you."