By Thomas Maier
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The Boys of Wexford
IRELAND APPEARED STRANGE AND NEW, yet hauntingly familiar. From inside the presidential helicopter, hundreds of feet above the ground, John Fitzgerald Kennedy gazed out at the beautiful land below and reflected upon his journey. Something about this ancestral homeland stirred him deeply. “Ireland is an unusual place,” he’d say before departing, “what happened five hundred or a thousand years is as yesterday.”
The president’s entourage took off that morning from Dublin and headed south along the rocky coastline of the Irish Sea on their way to Wexford County and the small town known as New Ross. From this place, Kennedy’s great-grandfather had departed in 1848 to escape a land tortured by famine and oppression to seek a new life as an immigrant in Boston. As if coming full circle, as if completing some generational journey begun by his forefathers more than a century ago, Kennedy returned to Ireland for a state visit in June 1963, the only Roman Catholic ever elected to the White House and the first American president to come to the Emerald Isle while in office. His aides and the press had questioned the usefulness of stopping in Ireland as part of a much larger European trip in which Kennedy inveighed against the Berlin Wall and the evils of communism. But Kennedy insisted on adding his family’s homeland to his itinerary. During the four days in Ireland, there would be plenty of political tasks, conversations about trade and diplomacy, though everyone recognized, including Kennedy himself, that the real reason for this Irish excursion was purely personal.
Out of the mist of this soggy day, Kennedy could see the lush farmlands of Eire—hundreds of acres stretched over long, sloping hills, carved majestically into the horizon by hedgerows, granite walls and crooked streams. Sliding by, almost in a blur,were scenes that seemed torn from picture postcards, the kind that Irish-Americans send to loved ones to remind them of what their families left behind: ruins of medieval churches and headstones lost in a meadow; cottages with thatched roofs; farmers feeding pigs or tending to sheep waiting to be sheared; old lighthouses, once kept by monks, perched along jagged beaches and grassy peninsulas whipped by waves. All were quiet reminders of an ancient land, culture and religion that Kennedy possessed in his bones but often kept from public view. On this trip, however, the young and often reserved president would hide neither his roots nor his enthusiasm.
Through his window, Kennedy tried to recognize certain landmarks, sites he remembered from his trips to Ireland before he became president. While in the helicopter, the president ordered the pilot to fly by Lismore Castle in Waterford County, the stone castle where his sister, Kathleen, once lived as the widow of the Duke of Devonshire and where he had stayed as a young congressman during his first visit to Ireland in 1947.The whirling bird hovered momentarily over this ancient castle as the president stared at its massive square towers and battlements, lost in his own thoughts. For some Irish, Lismore Castle, built on a giant rock, symbolized the oppressive presence of the British, a site with its own history of bloodshed in the struggle for liberty and political control of the isle. For Kennedy, though, the beautiful castle surrounded by gardens of magnolias and yews undoubtedly brought back memories of his dead sister and a different time in the Kennedy family’s lives together. In such a short time, Ireland had changed and so had Jack Kennedy himself. The president’s craft lingered for what seemed the longest time and eventually swooped away; it glided over the tops of trees to the River Barrow.
WAITING AT NEW ROSS, where the mouth of the river opens, were a throng of schoolchildren, all dressed in white sweaters and assembled on the thick green turf of an athletic field, newly named Sean O’Kennedy Football Field in honor of the president. From fifteen hundred feet above, Kennedy’s entourage of aides and family members could see the children in a formation that spelled out Failte, the Gaelic word for “Welcome.”The town soon made good on its promise. When the helicopter landed, Kennedy stepped out gingerly—immediately recognizable in his deep blue business suit, his thick wave of auburn hair and the smiling squint of his eyes—and was swarmed by well-wishers. Because first lady Jackie Kennedy was home tending to a troublesome pregnancy, the president was accompanied by his two sisters, Eunice and Jean, and his sister-in-law, Lee Radziwill.“He was just so thrilled how they responded,” Jean recalled years later. “I never saw him so excited. It was so touching, such a poetic experience.”
A choir from the local Christian Brothers school soon broke out in a song, “The Boys of Wexford,” a rousing tune commemorating the 1798 rebellion in that county in which many Irishmen, including members of Kennedy’s own family, died or were injured attempting to end England’s long-time presence in their land. Kennedy immediately recognized the song and began tapping his foot lightly. When a copy of the lyrics was handed to him, he joined in the chorus:
We are the Boys of Wexford,
Who fought with heart and hand,
To burst in twain the galling chain
And free our native land.
When they finished, the president asked the children to sing it again. The tune would linger in Kennedy’s mind for the remainder of his Irish trip and beyond. Another reminder of his own legacy came in one of the many gifts he received that day—a special vase of cut glass made by the nearby Waterford crystal firm, inscribed with his family’s Irish homestead, an immigrant ship and the White House.
Some fifteen thousand people, many of them young schoolgirls holding American flags, cheered wildly as Kennedy slowly rode by in a limousine, standing and waving to the crowd from the car’s half-opened bubble top. Despite a drizzle, the crowd roared its approval as the car moved into the heart of the town.“Kennedy . . . Kennedy,” they chanted without pause as the presidential parade car arrived at the quay. Beside the ships docked along the harbor, a special speakers’ platform had been constructed, but it had been built only after much bickering. At the heart of the dispute was New Ross’s town board chairman, Andrew Minihan, a gruff, opinionated man who knew what he liked and spared no remark for that which he didn’t. Minihan was, in the words of one writer,“a man whose integrity is as bristly as the whiskers and rough tweeds that cover him.”The Secret Service and some of JFK’s White House aides definitely rubbed him the wrong way.
Minihan first became annoyed with the endless debate about where to place the speaker’s dais on the quay.“Every man must justify his own existence somehow,” Minihan proclaimed to a group of reporters assembled in a bar before the president’s arrival, “but I’ve better ways of justifying my own than standing around with your American G-men and arguing whether the northeast corner should be there, or there.” And he moved his toes barely four inches to drive home the point. But Minihan’s biggest gripe stemmed from the argument over a dung heap, a sizeable and fragrant pile of muck and animal excrement, often used as fertilizer, located within smelling distance of the speaker’s dais. The Secret Service told Minihan, in no uncertain terms, that the pile of shit must go.
“Remove it?” he replied, indignantly. “I’ve no plan at all to remove it!”
Not one to be pushed around, Minihan staged his own rebellion by upping the ante. “As a matter of fact, we thought to add to it,” he mused. “It would be good for the character of your mighty President to have to cross a veritable Alp of dung on his way to the New Ross speaker’s stand.”
Now that wasn’t funny, not in the eyes of the sober–minded Secret Service men. The security detail argued that the dung heap posed a threat to the president. The agents insisted that the wives of the town council stay off the dais and banned a local marching band from appearing beside the platform. Their haughtiness only calcified Minihan’s position.“I’ll not live to see a sight more ridiculous,” Minihan brayed to the press,“than your G-men combing out dung piles to see if we’d planted bombs and merciful God only knows what else in them.” Eventually, the American ambassador, Matthew McCloskey, and some top brass at the foreign office in Dublin spoke privately with Minihan, telling him that his obstinacy would not do. Minihan let them know that he’d planned all along to have the dung carted away but objected to the airs put on by the Americans. As for the wives and the marching band, they got to stay.
When the big day arrived,Kennedy’s aides feared that Minihan might be a wild card, a party pooper who could easily spoil the president’s grand homecoming. He didn’t disappoint. In introducing the president at the podium, the microphones suddenly went dead. “Can you hear me?” he asked. The crowd roared that they couldn’t. Minihan, known for his hot temper, turned red and stewed. “We’re in trouble right now,” Minihan yelled.“Some pressman has walked on the communications.”
When the sound system returned, Kennedy seemed nonplussed, almost amused. Word of Minihan’s local rebellion, captured in humorous press accounts about the dung heap, had come to his attention. As he got up to speak, the president introduced his two sisters, Jean and Eunice, then recalled his family’s ties to the thousands of Irish who had fled the Famine’s death and despair, his great-grandfather Patrick Kennedy among them, and journeyed from places like New Ross to find a new home as immigrants in America.
“It took a hundred and fifteen years to make this trip, and six thousand miles, and three generations, but I am proud to be here,” the president told the crowd. “When my great-grandfather left here to become a cooper in East Boston, he carried nothing with him except two things: a strong religious faith and a strong desire for liberty. I am glad to say that all of his great-grandchildren have valued that inheritance.”
In passing, though, Kennedy couldn’t resist a teasing reference for the locals.
“If he hadn’t left, I would be working over at the Albatross Company,” Kennedy quipped, nodding over to the local fertilizer company across the quay. The crowd burst into laughter.
“Or perhaps for John V. Kelly,” the president added, referring to a well-known pub in Wexford, which earned him even further applause.
For on that day, all the Irish present—including the mayor, Minihan— recognized John F. Kennedy as one of their own.
TODAY, ALONG THE NARROW, WINDING ROADS from New Ross, you can see hundreds of acres of farmland, most covered by barley and hay swaying in the cool, raw winds from the Irish Sea. In early spring, the damp air and the low-flying clouds moisten your skin with a chilling touch. The breezes whip and tussle your hair, and your lungs expand and your eyes tear until you feel completely enraptured by nature, as if some supernatural force were at play and beyond your command.“The gods whistle in the air,” novelist Sean O’Faolain wrote of his native country.“The Otherworld is always at one’s shoulder.” Undoubtedly, there is a sense of the past in Ireland and— in the rapid change of weather, in the stories of chieftains and kings and heroes who died as martyrs for their religion or for Irish freedom—a tumultuous free spirit to the land.
In the valley of the River Barrow, which runs parallel to the path leading from New Ross to the farms in the outer locale of Dunganstown, you can sense what life was like in the 1840s for a young man named Patrick Kennedy. The muddy waters filled with boats are much today as they were then. The bridge across the Barrow, originally built by Norman conquerors in the thirteenth century, is nearly the same as the one that Patrick Kennedy crossed to get to market. In those days, New Ross was a shipping port easing toward Waterford Harbour and the ancient stone lighthouse at Hook Head. In the 1840s, the town boasted four tanneries, three timber yards, two bacon cellars and some fifteen thousand residents. Among three local brewers in town was the Cherry Bros. Brewery, where Patrick often stopped his horse-drawn cart with fresh supplies of barley from the Kennedy family farm in nearby Dunganstown, about six miles south of New Ross. At Cherry Bros., the owners also ran a cooperage where wooden barrels for whiskey were bent and shaped by the men who greeted young Kennedy when he sauntered into New Ross two or three times a week.
Although no record of his image exists, family members believe Patrick Kennedy possessed the reddish-brown hair common in their clan, as well as a physical strength needed to lug about sacks of produce and barrels. From the cooper’s tools and remnants of wooden barrels with “Cherry Bros.” carved into their sides—which can still be found today on the Kennedy Homestead in Dunganstown—you realize that Patrick Kennedy probably learned the trade of coopering while in New Ross rather than, as some historians say, in the New World. Irish whiskey, called Uisce Beatha, “the water of life,” by the populace and sometimes consumed in excess, was distilled from malted barley gathered by farmers like the Kennedys and kept in oak casks made by coopers.
On the hardscrabble farm the family cultivated, but did not own, a young man like Patrick commonly worked seventy hours over six days each week. The vein of granite running throughout their thirty-five-acre farm didn’t allow for potatoes to be grown as much as it did barley. From his father, James, and two older brothers, John and James, young Patrick Kennedy learned to be a farmer. While they toiled in the fields, his mother, Mary, and older sister, Mary, tended the house. But it was in the bustling town of New Ross where Patrick, the youngest of four children, learned of the world beyond the surrounding countryside and of its desperate troubles.
Throughout Ireland, the smell of putrid potatoes overwhelmed the land, cutting off some four million Irish from their main—and sometimes only— source of sustenance. More than 900,000 acres devoted to potatoes had turned sour. Although this plague would spread farther and more cunningly in other parts of the nation, County Wexford suffered almost immediately from the potato blight and impending starvation. As early as August 1845, during a mild summer that appeared to promise an abundant harvest, an oppressive stench filled the air, bringing sickness and death. The Wexford Independent, the regional newspaper, reported “a fatal malady has broken out among the potato crop,”warning that putrid potatoes plucked from the soil were “unfit for being introduced into the stomach and has often proved fatal.”
By 1848, the same year Patrick Kennedy would make a fateful decision for his family and himself, some 298 poor souls in Wexford had died from starvation and its accompanying diseases. In New Ross, the number of destitute people seeking emergency relief climbed higher than in any place in the county. The Famine soon became another reason—perhaps the most devastating one of all—to leave a land where the Kennedys were once kings, yet now their misery seemed to know no bounds.
Heirs of Brian Boru
THE KENNEDY ROOTS sink deep into Ireland’s past. In preparing for the 1963 presidential visit, the Library of Congress worked with genealogical sleuths to trace the family’s lineage back to the chieftains in Ormond and, at one time, the ancient kings of Ireland. In the native Gaelic tongue, the clan’s name was O’Cinneide, “hard-headed” or “ugly-headed.” (When told of that translation, President Kennedy quipped with a wry smile,“Let’s keep that quiet.”) Probably a more accurate translation, historians suggest, is “Head of the Clan.”According to these accounts, the O’Cinneide clan was an important part of early Irish history, and their most celebrated member, Brian Boru, a heroic part of the nation’s lore. As any pub crawler knows, hundreds, if not thousands, of those with Irish blood in their veins trace their roots to Brian Boru and other long-ago chieftains. For years, Irish historians have been as divided as Ireland itself in trying to decipher truth from myth. Regardless of the factual accuracy of their claims, these fables of lost majesty, of heroes who die tragically and leave behind a people yearning for freedom,were an important part of the Irish character. Intuitively,Kennedy seemed to understand the power of these myths on the imagination, and at times he paid homage to them. For these legends and folklore, as much as the gentle farmland or surrounding villages, provided the background for the Kennedy story in Dunganstown. And they would resonate within the family for many years to come.
IN ANCIENT IRELAND, the role of family was crucial, serving as a source of identity and protection for each individual. Several families of the same ancestry often formed a “sept”—a tribe of extended families—led by a chief- tain who watched over their interests and protected them from invaders. The O’Kennedys made their home in Ormond in County Tipperary, about twenty miles west of New Ross, and demonstrated a greater degree of independence than other Irish clans. The ruins of stone castles from the O’Kennedy sept still dot the countryside in Tipperary. For centuries, the clans had participated in pagan traditions of the Druids, the ancient Celtic people who worshipped various gods in nature and believed in the immortality of the soul. As Ireland became more Christian—the faith introduced in A.D. 432 by St. Patrick, who used three-leaf shamrocks to describe the Trinity—the clans decided who would be kings and thus became increasingly part of Ireland’s power structure.
The Danes became the first of Ireland’s oppressors after the golden age of monks and monasteries, which had kept Western culture alive by producing such manuscripts as The Books of Kells. For two hundred years, the island nation existed under Danish domination until Brian Boru, chieftain of the O’Cinneide clan and the larger Dal gCais Sept, defeated the Norsemen in 1014 at the battle of Clontarf, near Dublin. Brian Boru, the King of Munster, the southernmost province of Ireland, emerged as the first Christian king of all Ireland and earned the title Ard Ri, “High King.” According to these ancient scrolls, Brian Boru became king by picking up the mantle left by his brother, Mahon, who was assassinated by the Danes after a long period of peace. A glorious victory by Brian Boru ended that Irish generation’s burden of being ruled by outsiders who ravaged their villages. In the style of a great chieftain, Brian Boru brought a new era of enlightenment for his people.“He restored and built churches,” one historian said of Brian Boru’s era.“He built and set in order public schools for the teaching of letters and science in general and every territory he took from the Danes by the strength of his arm, he gave it . . . to the tribe to whom it belonged by right.”
When Brian Boru died, his heirs’ dreams for national unity fell apart. Over the next several decades, Ireland was torn by political infighting among the clans, rendering it vulnerable to military and economic control from the country across the sea. In 1169, the Norman barons of England invaded Wexford and soon ruled the countryside, opening the door for what would become centuries of British domination. This particular invasion received the blessing of the Roman Catholic Church and from Pope Hadrian IV, who happened to be an Englishman. Though many loyal Catholics lived in Ireland, Hadrian IV decreed that England’s King Henry II could seize Ireland as his own so long as the church received in return a pension of one penny for every Irish house. Surely, as the Vatican reasoned in this fateful exchange, the Catholic King of England would be preferable to the unruly and somewhat heretical natives of Ireland.“We are well pleased that you should enter that island,” the Pope wrote to the British monarch, instructing that the Irish “should receive you with honor and venerate you as their master.”
Under Norman rule, the Irish lost their own lands, and laws were passed that made them social outcasts. During this time, the family’s Gaelic name was Anglicized to O’Kennedy, the “O” eventually dropped. The Kennedys moved into southeastern Ireland; eventually, they were reduced to serfdom and worked as tenants on farms they would never own.
BY THE LATE SIXTEENTH CENTURY, Ireland was a pawn in a larger religious struggle between the British monarchy and the throne of Saint Peter. When the Pope refused to annul Henry VIII’s first marriage, the king broke away from Rome and formed the Church of England. Henry and his heirs converted Great Britain to Protestantism, setting off decades of strife. The austere Puritans, a group particularly intent on ridding England of its Catholic vestiges, replaced altars and rituals from the Latin Mass with the Book of Common Prayer. When the Irish Catholics attempted rebellion in the early 1640s, the British response was bloody and became even more oppressive.
Oliver Cromwell, a bold and ruthless leader, arrived in Ireland in 1649 to crush the rebels. A fervent Puritan during the Protestant reign of King Charles II, Cromwell believed that God oversaw and justified his every move, even those “regrettable” acts of violence that might become necessary. He possessed a relentlessness in demeanor and appearance. He wanted the British Empire “purified” of Catholicism. As a political leader, he envisioned the isle to the west freed of Rome’s influence and colonized by English Protestants.
Cromwell’s hatred of Catholics became a blood-lust in Ireland. His armies marched north to Drogheda, massacring some three thousand people. At Drogheda, the Irish tales of horror included Jesuit priests pierced with stakes, young virgins decimated and children used as shields as Cromwell’s troops assaulted the church and city. “This is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches,” Cromwell wrote back to England after this annihilation.“It will tend to prevent the effusion of blood in the future.”Then Cromwell turned south to Wexford, where he again showed no mercy, killing more than one thousand. When three hundred Catholic women in Wexford took refuge near a cross in a public square, their actions sealed their fates. Instead of invoking Christian sympathy from the soldiers, the women were butchered.
The Irish chose as their military leader Owen Roe O’Neill, an experienced field general whose father had fought for Eire’s liberty. O’Neill won a stunning initial victory at the battle of Benburb, even though British troops outmanned his own. As legend has it, the Irish looked to O’Neill, the gallant, auburn-haired warrior, as their savior after years of violence. But their resistance to Cromwell faded that same year when O’Neill died suddenly (probably of illness, though many believed he was poisoned), leaving them without a leader. In song and poetry,Owen Roe O’Neill would long be remembered by the Kennedys and generations of others for his tragic fate and the unanswered prayer of Irish independence. Nearly two hundred years later, Thomas Davis, a poet and nationalist leader himself, wrote his own lament for what was lost:
We thought you would not die—we were sure you would not go,
And leave us in our utmost need to Cromwell’s cruel blow—
Sheep without a shepherd, when the snow shuts out the sky,
Why did you leave us, Owen? Why, why did you die?
In Wexford, Cromwell marched to New Ross, where the local population surrendered rather than fall victim to the same bloodbath. Though Cromwell spared them from certain death in return for immediate surrender, he prohibited Catholics from all future practice of their religion. “I meddle not with any man’s conscience,” Cromwell insisted. “But if by liberty of conscience you mean a liberty to exercise the Mass, I judge it best to use plain dealing, and to let you know, where the Parliament of England have power, that will not be allowed.” Incensed by the support of Irish priests and clergy for the rebellion, Cromwell denounced the Roman Catholic Church in strong, often violent terms, deriding the priests as “the intruders” in Ireland. “Is God, will God be, with you?” Cromwell asked, as his campaign wiped out all hope of Irish independence.“I am confident He will not.” Cromwell’s name was a curse word in Ireland for generations to come.
RESTRICTIONS ON the Irish became broader and more institutionalized, especially after the Catholic King James II put together an army in Ireland and was defeated by William of Orange and his Protestant forces at the historic 1690 battle of the Boyne. To make sure the Irish remained under its thumb, the British Parliament passed laws that reduced the Irish ownership of farms and granted large tracts of land to those, mainly Protestants, who had been loyal to the Crown. When lands were confiscated from Catholics and given to English squires, the fate of the Kennedys living around New Ross was dictated by these edicts. In 1704, the Irish Parliament, with the Crown’s blessing, passed one of several “penal laws”—this one called “the Act to Prevent the Further Growth of Popery.” It not only made the practice of religion illegal for Catholics but also offered a bounty for turning in priests.
- "There is a fascinating, five-generation story to tell here, and Maier does it well...this book reads like a metaphor for the Irish immigrant experience itself."—Providence Journal
- "This extremely readable biography not only examines one particular immigrant family but also sheds light on the larger story of Irish Americans from the early twentieth century onward."—Booklist
- "The door is open and the time is right for another serious, multigenerational history of America's most fabled clan. Newsday reporter Maier answers the need quite well with this fascinating account."—Publishers Weekly
- "A colossal work...The Kennedys is a pleasure to read and a legitimate page-turner."—BookReporter.com
- "A hefty, well documented, glowing account of the Kennedys as a prime example of Irish Catholic experience in America. He paints a vivid picture of the anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiment that faced immigrants with brogues."—Kirkus Reviews
- "You can't understand the Kennedys unless you look at their Irish Catholic roots. Thomas Maier has gone far beyond earlier Kennedy biographers and historians to reveal ties that shaped the Kennedys long after they left Ireland. And he's done it in a lively, readable way."—Evan Thomas, author of Robert Kennedy: His Life
- On Sale
- Mar 25, 2009
- Page Count
- 736 pages
- Basic Books