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Column: The Kennedys – the closest thing the Irish-American diaspora has to a royal family

The Kennedys have divided opinion in both Ireland and the US for six decades – and continue to fascinate us. Larry Donnelly examines Irish and Irish American perspectives on this remarkable family.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

THIS YEAR, 2013, is a special one for all of us in this country with strong ties to the United States. It marks the 50th anniversary of President John F Kennedy’s historic visit to Ireland. The visit was commemorated this summer in Wexford, his ancestral home county, and in other places in the country where he had roots and where he travelled during those storied days in 1963.

It is also the year of The Gathering, the tourism initiative that has confounded the sceptics and proven a spectacular success. The number of US visitors to Ireland is already up by more than 20 per cent.

It is, therefore, an appropriate time to consider the past, present and future of the pre-eminent Irish American political family, the Kennedys.

Ireland’s love affair with America

This will be the focus of the upcoming Kennedy Summer School, which will take place in New Ross, Co Wexford from 12–14 September. Two members of the Kennedy family are coming to Ireland to address attendees. Edward Kennedy Jr, son of the legendary late US Senator Edward Kennedy, will speak about his father’s life and legacy, as well as his immense contributions to our transatlantic relationship. Rory Kennedy, daughter of assassinated US Senator Robert Kennedy, will participate in a public interview after a showing of her Emmy award nominated documentary about her mother, Ethel.

Other speakers will examine the Kennedy presidency, the president’s successful drive to get America to outer space, the current economic relationship between Ireland and the US and this country’s “on again, off again” love affair with America. Irish politics is also on the agenda. There’ll be a public interview with the former government minister, Mary O’Rourke, and a forum featuring political leaders and experts on the government’s campaign to abolish Seanad Éireann.

Five decades haven’t diminished affection for the Kennedys

I, too, will be speaking at the summer school about the somewhat conflicting and still evolving perspectives of Irish people and Irish Americans about the Kennedys. One of the things that has most astonished me in the more than a decade I’ve lived here, and was manifest during the summer, is the incredibly high regard in which the Kennedy family is still held by the vast majority of people in Ireland.

The recollections shared by Irish people who were here for President Kennedy’s visit 50 years ago were full of glee and pride. An extraordinary “Yank” they could call their own came home in 1963 and, as was evident from the warmth with which his daughter Caroline and the rest of the visiting Kennedys were greeted this summer, five eventful and turbulent decades haven’t diminished in the slightest their affection for his family.

Given that I wasn’t alive in 1960 when President Kennedy was elected to the White House, I have to rely on my father’s still vivid memory of what those days were like for Irish Americans – and for us Boston Irish in particular.

My father always says that the city was euphoric and that I couldn’t even dream of what it was like for our family and thousands more like us in America’s most Irish city. One of our own, albeit from a background of great privilege, had overcome two barriers that had always held us back: being Irish and being Catholic. Having seen footage of the city in celebratory mode and having talked to “old timers” who actually worked on President Kennedy’s campaign, I can only imagine that, on a smaller scale, it wasn’t entirely dissimilar to the unbridled joy of African Americans in Chicago’s Grant Park when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.

Irish America’s estimation of the family

It is safe to say, however, that the roughly three years between President Kennedy’s election and his tragic assassination were the high water mark in Irish America’s collective estimation of the Kennedys. Some now consider his presidency less than stellar. His brother, Robert, was labelled by many politically-active Irish Americans as haughty, brusque and indifferent to the issues that most affected them.

After his assassination, the Kennedy mantle was passed to their brother, Ted, who became both the greatly adored hero of liberal Americans and the central political figure in Massachusetts from 1962, when he was elected to the US Senate, until his death in 2009.

That he was a towering figure on both the national and local stages was a decidedly mixed blessing for Senator Kennedy. His early support for legalised abortion and, even more controversially, his endorsement of forced busing as a means of desegregating Boston’s public school system endeared him to the broader American left. Yet these positions made him a hate figure for many Irish Americans in Boston who felt like Senator Kennedy left them and their concerns behind.

As the senator once ruefully responded, when asked what a Boston Irish bar owner in the city’s Charlestown neighbourhood would like to do with a sword he had presented him before the chaotic era of forced busing: “stick it in my gut, I guess.” Some of these Boston Irish never voted for Senator Kennedy again. More did so through gritted teeth, and largely because of his unparalleled ability to “bring home the bacon” or on account of his unwavering support for organised labour.

The end to America’s greatest political dynasty?

Following Senator Kennedy’s death in 2009 and the retirement of his son, Patrick, from the US House of Representatives in 2011, there was no Kennedy in American public office for the first time in more than 60 years. Observers wondered if this was the end of the country’s greatest political dynasty.  They were soon proven wrong.

In 2012, young Joe Kennedy III, an earnest, accomplished graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law School and a former Peace Corps volunteer, was elected to the US House of Representatives from Massachusetts. His campaign excited older voters, who he reminded of his forebears, and younger voters, who he buoyed with his exuberance and optimism, alike. The mantle, and all that comes with it, is his now.

In the end, while people on this island and the Irish American diaspora may have differing opinions about the Kennedys, they remain the closest thing we both have to a royal family. Millions, especially those of us who love politics, will be forever fascinated with them. The Kennedy Summer School presents an ideal opportunity to indulge that fascination.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with IrishCentral.com. More detailed information about the Kennedy Summer School is available at www.kennedysummerschool.ie.

About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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