The people of Ireland were stunned by JFK’s sudden and tragic death, and it has become one of the few moments in history when everyone can remember where they were when they heard the news. It was common at the time for houses in Ireland to have a picture of JFK hanging on the wall. Many households bore witness to decades of the rosary being said on bended knee for the repose of the soul of this American politician who had become one of our own Irish sons.
As another anniversary approaches, the time seems fitting to take a look back at the Irish roots of which JFK, and indeed the entire Kennedy family, were so proud, by reflecting on his time in Ireland and the lives of his Irish-born ancestors.
A few days in June
On the 26th of June, 1963, JFK made history and set a long standing precedent by becoming the first United States President to visit the Irish Republic. He arrived on a Wednesday evening when Air Force One landed in Dublin airport. Promptly greeted by Éamonn DeValera and Séan Lemass who were the President and Taoiseach at the time. Though he only a few days, JFK covered a large amount of ground, visiting his great-grandfather’s birthplace, as well as whistle-stop visits to Cork, Galway, Limerick, and of course Dublin where he became the first person non-Irish person to address the Houses of the Oireachtas. The visit was a resounding success, as JFK laid wreaths of remembrance, received honorary degrees, was given the freedom of cities, and charmed the people of Ireland who came to love him, more than ever, as a symbol of the American dream, and what dizzying heights the children of Irish immigrants could hope to achieve. Before departing from Shannon airport, JFK promised that he would one day return to Ireland, “I am going to come back and see old Shannon’s face again”. Sadly, it was a promise that he would prove unable to keep.
Dunganstown, New Ross County Wexford 1963: JFK having tea with his host and second cousin Mary Ryan and her daughter Josephine Ryan
Beginning with the Kennedy's side of the family tree, JFK’s paternal great-grandparents were both from County Wexford. As mentioned above, his ancestral home is generally regarded as being in Dunganstown, which was the homeplace of his paternal great grandfather, Patrick Kennedy. Patrick was born on the 16th of February 1823. Patrick was the son of a farmer. As an adult, he found employment as a cooper. In 1849, Patrick left Ireland for the United States, but he wasn’t alone. His fiancé Bridget Murphy also went with him. Bridget was born in 1827 in Owenduff, County Wexford, about 16 kilometres to the east of Dunganstown. The couple were married the same year as they moved to the States and went on to have five children together, Mary, Joanna, John, Michael, and Patrick. Sadly, John died at the age of two, but the other four Kennedy children survived into adulthood. Patrick would go on to marry a woman named Mary Augusta Hickey, whose parents had also come to America from Ireland. Patrick and Mary would become JFK’s grandparents through their son Joseph Patrick.
Patrick Kennedy died of cholera on the 22nd of November 1858, exactly 105 years to the day before his famous descendent took his last breath. He left behind his children and widow Bridget, who was only 31 years old at the time. Bridget would go on to live as a widow for another 30 years until she herself died in 1888.
Turning now to the maternal branch of JFK’s family tree, we find that his Irish roots stretched all over the island. Thomas Fitzgerald was born in 1823 in Bruff County Limerick. Though little is known about Thomas’ life, we do know that he married a woman from County Cavan, named Rose Anna Cox. She was born in 1836, though her exact parish of origin is unknown. The couple immigrated to Boston Massachusetts. Whilst in Boston, Rose Anna gave birth to twelve children in twenty-one years. Their names were, Michael, James, Thomas, John Francis, Michael J., William, Edward, Joseph, Ellen Rosanna, George, Henry and Mary Ellen. Sadly, Michael, Ellen Rosanna, and Mary Ellen would all die in their early childhood. The couple’s son, John Francis, would go on to marry a woman named Mary Joseph Hannon, who would have a daughter named Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald, JFK’s mother.
Rose Anna’s fate is a tragic one, as she died suddenly on the 12th of March 1879 when she heard that her entire family had perished in a train wreck. The story was a false rumour, but the shock of thinking that she had lost her loved ones cost Rose Anna her life. She was only 43 years old at the time. She left behind her nine surviving children and her widowed husband Thomas, who would go on to live for another six years. The couple are buried together in Holy Cross Cemetery in Malden Massachusetts.
When JFK died, the people of Ireland were in utter shock. It felt to them as though one of their own had been taken. News of the assasination was reported upon heavily in the Irish Times. His death was treated as that of a dear family member and the nation fell into a period of mourning. President DeValera even went so far as to send a personal telegram to the widowed Jackie Kennedy, expressing his deep sympathies for her loss and explaining how dearly he would be missed in Ireland. The country took part in the National Day of Mourning which was occuring in the United States three days after the assassination.
Even today, all these years later, anyone who is old enough to remember that fateful day in 1963 can tell you where they were and what they were doing when they heard that the 35th President of the United States was dead. The impact of his visit to Ireland and his love for the Irish people is still remembered fondly in the hearts of those who were lucky enough to witness it first hand.
Click on the images to learn more about the entries that inspired this Chronicles Insight.
Do you have a memory from when JFK made his trip to Ireland? You can now add it to our IrelandXO Timeline! Simply click on the button below, select the County and Parish you want to add it to and fill in the online form. We will moderate and publish your Timeline Chronicle shortly after. Of particular interest are any personal photographs fom the American President's visit of 1963. By creating a Timeline Chronicle you will be able to share the information with others connected to the same place of origin, living in Ireland and also all around the world.
This Insight has been produced with support received from the Heritage Council.