JFK: The Irish Connection

President Kennedy lays a wreath at John Barry Memorial in Wexford, during his visit in June 1963.Picture: JFK50Ireland.com

THE last of JFK’s Irish cousins has recalled the devastating day news of his assassination reached the rural homestead where the Kennedy story began.

Retired farmer Pat Kennedy, 72, said the anniversary will bring emotions flooding back of the clan coming together in shock and disbelief only months after the US president had paid them a celebrated visit.

“I remember the evening when word came through quite well,” said Pat, the last direct male descendant of the Kennedys who fled the Irish famine for Boston in the 1840s.

“Sure, we were all shocked. We heard he was shot but we thought he might survive the assassination attempt.

“But it wasn’t to be.”

Pat, a life-long dairy farmer, was just 22 when he was snapped alongside a beaming JFK in a famous photograph of his trip to his ancestral home in Dunganstown, outside New Ross, Co Wexford.

Five months later and the US president was murdered, in a moment that reverberated around the world and drove shockwaves into the close-knit, pastoral parish where the Kennedys came from.

“It was only on radio that time that we heard because we didn’t even have television here,” said Pat. “I was on the farm and when I came into the house my mother and father told me. Everyone was shocked.

“There was nothing really we could do.”

As the world talked about the events in Dallas, the Kennedys scattered within a few miles of each other around remote Dunganstown came together to share in their grief and disbelief.

“We met up at the homestead, the family and myself went up to my aunt’s and we all discussed it,” Pat revealed.

“We had a Mass up in the local church the next morning for him. It was a pity.”

As they came together, they recalled the great excitement of JFK’s visit to the homestead that June, and how he had secretly planned to make a private trip back — with wife Jacqueline and their children — the next year.

JFK: The Irish Connection

Pat Kennedy who recalls the disbelief following the shooting. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Cousins were taken on helicopter rides from the farm to nearby New Ross — from where JFK’s great grandfather left Ireland in 1848 — by US security agents who were camped out at the homestead.

“That was great excitement — we hadn’t even been in a plane at that time,” remembers Pat.

A direct line to Washington was set up in an old stone-built outbuilding so the president could stay in constant contact with the White House.

Pat’s father gave the President a walking stick during the visit and when Pat travelled to Boston to see the JFK Museum many years later it was the first thing he saw on the wall.

“It was 50 years ago, and people still ask me what did he say to me and what did I say to him,” he said. “What do you say to the president of the United States? You would only be delighted to meet him and it was terrific to have him visit us.”

But despite half a century having passed, Pat says he still often thinks about the day JFK made his poignant emigrant-to-president return to Ireland and how that joy was destroyed just months later.

“When he died we got letters here sympathising, even from Japan,” he said.

“We got cases full of them. They’re packed away.”

“The anniversary will bring it all back to us again. It keeps coming back.

I’ll feel sorry.”

JFK was planning second Ireland visit

JOHN F Kennedy was planning to visit his cousins in Ireland before he was killed, his relatives have revealed.

The US president made a much-publicised trip in 1963 to his ancestral homestead in Dunganstown, near New Ross, Co Wexford, five months before he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

His great-grandfather Patrick Kennedy had fled the farm and the devastating Famine just three generations beforehand to start a new life in Boston and forge the beginning of a world- famous dynasty.

During the emotional emigrant-to-president return, JFK repeatedly apologised to his cousin Mary Ryan for the massive security entourage, media circus and throngs of onlookers who had descended on the humble homestead.

Mary’s grandson Patrick Grennan, who now runs the farm, said while the pair were sitting together drinking tea by the fireside — on an old car seat — the president turned to her and asked could he come back privately.

“The president seemed to be blown away and he kept apologising for bringing the big crowd here,” said Patrick, 38, the eighth generation to inherit the farm.

“He actually asked my grandmother could he come back the next year with his wife and the kids on a private visit, without the media intrusion.

“Of course, that didn’t happen.”

Jacqueline Kennedy fulfilled the wish of her husband in 1967 by returning to the homestead with their children Caroline and John. The family stayed at nearby Woodstown House in Co Waterford during the trip.

JFK’s visit to the ancestral homestead in June 1963 led to tens of thousands of people flocking there every year afterwards. Constantly distracted from his farming by tourists, Mr Grennan — a third cousin once removed of the US president — decided to open a makeshift visitor centre in one of the old farm buildings.

That has since been transformed into a purpose-built museum which this year became home to JFK’s rosary beads and his Commander- in-Chief dog tag which he was wearing at the time of his assassination.

JFK: The Irish Connection

A third cousin once removed, Patrick Grennan (pictued), initially opened a makeshift visitor centre to accommodate tourists who flocked to his farm.

Jacqueline Kennedy gave the precious keepsakes to Mrs Ryan’s daughter during her husband’s funeral at Arlington Cemetery and told her to bring them back to Dunganstown.

“Jackie brought her aside at the funeral and said ‘bring these two personal belongings back to Mrs Ryan — I would love her to have them’,” said Mr Grennan.

They were kept in a simple drawer in the farmhouse for years — taken out now and again, once by Mr Grennan as a boy to show his school class — and only this year were put on display.

He said the mementos were a mark of the impact the visit to Dunganstown had on the president.

“When he came into our farmyard in 1963, my grandmother gave him a big hug and it was very unusual that JFK got this big hug,” he said.

“Then when he left here, he gave her a big hug. His sisters were amazed that the president was becoming so personal.”

Fifty years on, the Irish relations of John F Kennedy are preparing to mark his passing with a private gathering at the place where his remarkable story began.

“He’s the man who said he was going to put a man on the moon... he wasn’t your typical politician, he nearly brought Hollywood to politics.

“He brought new hope to the world in the 1960s,” said Mr Grennan.

“Obviously you would be very proud that you have one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, that his ancestor left from here and that he visited here in public office to acknowledge who he was, a descendant of Patrick who emigrated from Ireland during the famine.

“He stood in this farmyard in 1963 to acknowledge who he was.”

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