Young, charismatic and handsome, John F Kennedy redefined the political landscape in the United States when he successfully ran for President against Richard Nixon. His beaming smile, distinctive New England drawl and glamorous, fabulously wealthy lifestyle would come to challenge Americans’ image of the US Presidency, and his assassination in Dallas in 1963 would shock the world. JFK’s brothers Bobby and Ted, his sister Jean, his father Joseph, his grandfather Patrick, his daughter Caroline, his grand-nephew Joe Kennedy III and other members of the far-flung Kennedy clan have been part of the political establishment of the United States for over a century, marking them out as arguably the most famous Irish-American family in the world.
JFK, known as ‘Jack’ to his family and friends, naturally gained a special place of affection in Irish hearts as the 20th century moved from the horror of the two world wars into a cautious optimism about the future, and his larger-than-life image bolstered Ireland’s self-esteem on the international stage. The Kennedys had made their first foray into politics less than four decades after Jack’s great-grandparents Patrick and Bridget left Ireland’s Ancient East for Boston in the early part of the 19th century. Their home had been Dunganstown, near New Ross on the coast of County Wexford, though the Kennedy clan itself goes back much further, to medieval Tipperary.
JFK himself visited Dunganstown when he came to Ireland in 1963, nearly 120 years after Patrick and Bridget had left, and shortly before he met his end in Dallas. Today, his legacy and the legacy of the Kennedy family is maintained and explored in the locality.
The Kennedy Homestead
Five generations have passed since Patrick Kennedy was born here around 1823, and today his relatives – JFK’s cousins – still work the land where the family made their living. This unique ‘living museum’ highlights Dunganstown’s links to their most famous emigrant family, and remains a focal point for “the Kennedys who went away and the Kennedys who stayed behind.” The interpretive centre at The Kennedy Homestead draws on a huge wealth of history, and has coordinated with the Kennedy Presidential Library to incorporate a wide range of sources and artefacts. The whole homestead has been preserved and restored, offering a glimpse into the famine-stricken Ireland that Patrick Kennedy was forced to leave when he and Bridget set their sights on the new world and a legacy which would eventually come to shape America.
The John F Kennedy Arboretum
Set near New Ross, on beautiful and historic Hook Head, is the JFK Arboretum, dedicated to the memory of Jack Kennedy by Ireland’s President Éamon de Valera in 1968 and built using donations from the USA. It covers 620 acres and boasts over 4500 different species of tree and shrub, some native to Ireland and others representative of a wide range of habitats all over the Earth. Of special interest is the track up to the summit of nearby Slievecoiltia, which provides a spectacular panorama of the arboretum below and the long, rugged rocks of Hook Head stretching out into the Celtic Sea. A short distance away is Dunmore East, in County Waterford, and Hook Head provides an incredible vista all the way down the Copper Coast towards the town of Dungarvan and distant Helvick Head.
JFK would not be the last president to highlight his Irish roots: In 1984 Ronald Reagan delighted the small village of Ballyporeen in County Tipperary by paying a visit to his ancestral home, and Barack Obama made a point of visiting his relatives in Moneygall, County Offaly, in 2011. Less auspiciously, Richard Nixon came to see his ancestors’ homeland in Kildare in 1970.