George Bernard Shaw, speaking as an Irishman, summed up an approach
to life: ... "I dream things that never were-and I say: Why not?"
-John F. Kennedy before the Irish Parliament, June 28, 1963
IN AUGUST 1947, John F. Kennedy traveled to Ireland. The trip was
notable for several reasons. Kennedy was first and foremost a "good New
Englander," an American-so said the Irish ambassador to the United
States-who had all but lost his connection to the old country. Indeed,
recalling how often Jack Kennedy had visited England in the 1930s and
early 1940s without going to Ireland, the ambassador archly described
Kennedy as "an English American." "Many people made much of his Irish
ancestry," one of Kennedy's English friends said. But he was "a European
... more English than Irish." Now, at long last, he was going home. That
was not, however, how his father saw it. For Joseph Patrick Kennedy,
whose drive for social acceptance shadowed most of what he did, being
described as an "Irishman" was cause for private rage. "Goddamn it!" he
once sputtered after a Boston newspaper identified him that way. "I was
born in this country! My children were born in this country! What the
hell does someone have to do to become an American?"
But his son had if not formed a deep emotional attachment, at least
taken his cue from his mother's father, John F. Fitzgerald. "There seems
to be some disagreement as to whether my grandfather Fitzgerald came
from Wexford, Limerick or Tipperary," Kennedy would later recall. "And
it is even more confusing as to where my great[-]grandmother came
from-because her son-who was the Mayor of Boston-used to claim his
mother came from whichever Irish county had the most votes in the
audience he was addressing at that particular time." And indeed, when
the twenty-nine-year-old had first run for Congress the year before,
Irish Americans in his district had been hesitant to support Kennedy
because of his lack of ethnic identification, let alone pride.
Officially, Kennedy was on a fact-finding mission to study the potential
workings of the Marshall Plan in a Europe still reeling from the
devastation wrought by the Second World War. Unofficially, it was a
chance to relax with Kathleen Kennedy Hartington, Jack's favorite
younger sister, who was even more "English American" than he was. Though
her husband, William Cavendish Hartington, who was in line to become the
next duke of Devonshire, had died in the war, Kathleen had stayed in
England, where the Devonshires treated her with fond regard. They gave
her free run of their several great estates, including Lismore Castle in
southern Ireland's County Waterford, a twelfth-century mansion once
owned by Sir Walter Raleigh. Kathleen called it the "most perfect place"
in the world.
Kathleen asked Jack to join her for a vacation at Lismore, where she
promised to bring him together with former Foreign Secretary Anthony
Eden; Pamela Churchill, the divorced wife of Winston's son, Randolph;
and other prominent English social and political lions. "Anthony Eden
arrives today," Kathleen wrote an American friend, "so by the end of the
week he and Jack will have fixed up the state of the world."
Like Kathleen, Jack Kennedy had been schooled to move comfortably in
privileged circles. Jack and Kathleen did not think of themselves as
anything but American aristocrats. Wit, charm, and intelligence added to
the cachet he carried as a congressman and the son of one of America's
wealthiest entrepreneurs who himself was a former ambassador to Britain.
Yet those who met John Kennedy for the first time in 1947 found little
assurance in his appearance. Though having passed his thirtieth birthday
in the spring, he looked like "a college boy," or at best a Harvard
Ph.D. candidate in political science. He contributed to the impression
with his casual attire, appearing sometimes on the House floor in khaki
pants and a rumpled seersucker jacket with a shirttail dangling below
his coat or in the House cafeteria line in sweater and sneakers. At six
feet and only 140 pounds, his slender body, gaunt and freckled face, and
full head of tousled brown hair made him seem younger than his thirty
years. Even when he dressed in formal suits, which was not often, it did
not make him look older or like a congressman. "He wore the most
godawful suits," Mary Davis, his secretary, said. "Horrible looking,
hanging from his frame." Unlike so many members of the House who
self-consciously dressed the part, Kennedy reflected his sense of
entitlement in his informal dress. But it did not encourage an
impression of maturity, and it was difficult for most colleagues to take
him seriously. He initially struck veteran congressmen as the son of a
famous family who had inherited his office rather than earned it.
Sometimes he didn't impress them at all. "Well, how do you like that?"
he asked his congressional office staff one morning. "Some people got
into the elevator and asked me for the fourth floor." During his first
week in the House, a veteran congressman who mistook him for a page
demanded a copy of a bill until Jack informed the astonished member that
they were colleagues.
Nevertheless, he offended almost no one. Although he conveyed a certain
coolness or self-control, his radiant smile and genuine openness made
him immediately likable. "The effect he has on women voters was almost
naughty," New York Times columnist James Reston later wrote.
"Every woman either wants to mother him or marry him." Another columnist
saw something in his appearance that suggested "to the suggestible that
he is lost, stolen or strayed-a prince in exile, perhaps, or a very
A visit to New Ross, a market town on the banks of the Barrow River
fifty miles east of Lismore, filled some of Jack's time in Ireland.
Kathleen, who spent the day playing golf with her guests, did not join
him. Instead, Pamela Churchill, whom Jack asked "rather quietly, rather
apologetically," went along. They drove for five hours in Kathleen's
huge American station wagon over rutted roads along Ireland's scenic
southeastern coast before reaching the outskirts of the town.
New Ross was not casually chosen. As they approached, with only a letter
from his aunt Loretta, his father's sister, to guide him, Jack stopped
to ask directions to the Kennedy house. ("Which Kennedys will it be that
you'll be wanting?" the man replied.) Jack tried a little white
farmhouse on the edge of the village with a front yard full of chickens
and geese. A lady surrounded by six kids, "looking just like all the
Kennedys," greeted him with suspicion. After sending for her husband,
who was in the fields, the family invited Jack and Pamela for tea in
their thatched-roof cottage with a dirt floor. Though Pamela was
impressed with the family's s imple dignity, she compared the visit to a
scene from Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road.
Jack believed that he had discovered his third cousins and seemed to
enjoy himself thoroughly. Asking if he could do anything for them, the
cousins proposed that he "drive the children around the village in the
station wagon," which he did to their pleasure and his. For her part,
Pamela clearly did not understand "the magic of the afternoon." Neither
did Kathleen, who was angry when Jack returned late for dinner. "Did
they have a bathroom?" she asked snidely.
The successful striving of her great-grandparents, grandparents, and
parents- the unceasing ambition of the Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys-had
catapulted the family into another realm, an ocean and a century apart
from the relatives left behind in Ireland. In America anything was
possible-the Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys were living proof. For most of
the family, these Kennedys of New Ross were something foreign, something
best ignored or forgotten. But not for Jack.
JACK HAD ONLY RUDIMENTARY KNOWLEDGE about his distant ancestors. He knew
that his great-grandfather Patrick Kennedy had come to East Boston
during the great potato famines of the late 1840s, worked as a cooper
making wagon staves and whiskey barrels, married Bridget Murphy, and
fathered three daughters and a son before he died of cholera in 1858
when only thirty-five.
Jack also knew that his great-grandfather on his mother's side, Thomas
Fitzgerald, had clung to his farm in Ireland until 1854, when the famine
drove him to America as well. Initially settling in Acton, twenty-five
miles west of Boston, his impoverishment as a farmer forced him to take
up life in Boston's North End Irish ghetto, a crowded slum of wooden
tenements. One contemporary described it as a "dreary, dismal" desolate
world in which all was "mean, nasty, inefficient [and] forbidding,"
except for the Catholic Church, which provided spiritual comfort and
In 1857 Thomas married Rosanna Cox, with whom he had twelve
children-nine of whom reached maturity, an amazing survival rate in a
time when infant mortality was a common event. Thomas, who lived until
1885, surviving Rosanna by six years, prospered first as a street
peddler of household wares and then in a grocery business, which doubled
as a North End tavern in the evenings. Income from tenements he bought
and rented to Irish laborers made his family comfortable and opened the
way to greater success for his offspring.
The limits of Jack's knowledge about his Irish relatives was partly the
result of his parents' upward mobility and their eagerness to replace
their "Irishness" with an American identity. Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy,
Jack's mother, took pains to instill American values in the children,
ignoring their Irish roots and taking them to the storied landmarks of
the country's Revolutionary past around Boston. This attitude differed
little from that of other ethnic groups, who tried to meet the demands
of being an American by forgetting about their Old World past, but in
stratified Boston it took on special meaning. Rose and Joe were
understandably eager to insulate the family from the continual snubs
that Irish Americans suffered at the hands of local Brahmins, well-off
Protestant Americans whose roots went back to the earliest years of the
Republic. Although Rose and Joe enjoyed privileged lives, their tangible
sense of being outsiders in their native land remained a social reality
they struggled to overcome.
The Boston in which Joe and Rose grew up was self-consciously
"American." It was the breeding ground for the values and spirit that
had given birth to the nation and the center of America's most famous
university where so many of the country's most influential leaders had
been educated. Snobbery or class consciousness was as much a part of the
city's landscape as Boston Common. Coming from the wrong side of the
tracks in most American cities was no fixed impediment to individual
success. But in Boston, where "the Lowells speak only to the Cabots and
the Cabots speak only to God," rising above one's station was an
enterprise for only the most ambitious.
What vivid sense of family history there was began with Jack's two
grandfathers-Patrick Joseph Kennedy and John F. Fitzgerald, both
impressively successful men who achieved local fame and gave their
children the wherewithal to enjoy comfortable llives. Patrick Joseph
Kennedy was born in 1858, the year his father died. In an era when no
public support program came to the aid of a widow with four children,
Bridget Murphy Kennedy, Patrick's mother, supported the family as a
saleswoman and shopkeeper. At age fourteen, P.J., as he was called, left
school to work on the Boston docks as a stevedore to help support his
mother and three older sisters. In the 1880s, with money he had saved
from his modest earnings, he launched a business career by buying a
saloon in Haymarket Square. In time, he bought a second establishment by
the docks. To capitalize on the social drinking of upper-class Boston,
P.J. purchased a third bar in an upscale hotel, the Maverick House.
With his handlebar mustache, white apron, and red sleeve garters, the
stocky, blue-eyed, red-haired P.J. cut a handsome figure behind the bar
of his taverns. By all accounts, he was a good listener who gained the
regard and even affection of his patrons. Before he was thirty, his
growing prosperity allowed him to buy a whiskey-importing business, P.
J. Kennedy and Company, that made him a leading figure in Boston's
Likable, always ready to help less fortunate fellow Irishmen with a
little cash and some sensible advice, P.J. enjoyed the approval and
respect of most folks in East Boston, a mixed Boston neighborhood of
upscale Irish and Protestant elite. Beginning in 1884, he converted his
popularity into five consecutive one-year terms in the Massachusetts
Lower House, followed by three two-year terms in the state senate.
Establishing himself as one of Boston's principal Democratic leaders, he
was invited to give one of the seconding speeches for Grover Cleveland
at the party's 1888 national convention in St. Louis.
But campaigning, speech making, and legislative maneuvering were less
appealing to him than the behind-the-scenes machinations that
characterized so much of Boston politics in the late-nineteenth and
early-twentieth centuries. After leaving the senate in 1895, P.J. spent
his political career in various appointive offices-elections
commissioner and fire commissioner-as the backroom boss of Boston's Ward
Two, and as a member of his party's unofficial Board of Strategy. At
board meetings over sumptuous lunches in room eight of the Quincy House
hotel near Scollay Square, P.J. and three other power brokers from
Charlestown and the South and North Ends chose candidates for local and
statewide offices and distributed patronage.
There was time for family, too. In 1887 P.J. married Mary Augusta
Hickey, a member of an affluent "lace curtain" Irish family from the
upscale suburb of Brockton. The daughter of a successful businessman and
the sister of a police lieutenant, a physician with a Harvard medical
degree, and a funeral home director, Hickey had solidified Kennedy's
move into the newly emerging Irish middle class, or as legendary Boston
mayor James Michael Curley mockingly called them, "cut glass" Irish or
FIFs ("First Irish Families"). By the time he died in 1929, P.J. had
indeed joined the ranks of the cut-glass set, holding an interest in a
coal company and a substantial amount of stock in a bank, the Columbia
Trust Company. His wealth afforded his family of one son, Joseph
Patrick, and two daughters an attractive home on Jeffries Point in East
John F. Fitzgerald was better known in Boston than P.J. and had a
greater influence on Jack's life. Born in 1863, John F. was the fourth
of twelve children.
Excerpted from "An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917 - 1963" by Robert Dallek. Copyright © 2004 by Robert Dallek. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.