Fergus Finlay: Jean Kennedy Smith, a friend to Ireland who left an enduring legacy

Fergus Finlay: Jean Kennedy Smith, a friend to Ireland who left an enduring legacy

Jean Kennedy Smith was instrumental, and significantly so, in the first IRA ceasefire, writes Fergus Finlay

Fergus Finlay: Jean Kennedy Smith, a friend to Ireland who left an enduring legacy
The late Jean Kennedy Smith, with former SDLP leader John Hume and former Tánaiste Dick Spring, at a municipal conference in Tralee, County Kerry, in 1994, where she was guest speaker. Photo: Don MacMonagle


IT HAS been an important week for news: A new government being formed, an economy trying to revitalise itself, a pandemic lurking in the background, ready to clobber the unwary, and a mad US president, apparently unravelling by the day.

And there’s a deep, continuing sense of loss and tragedy after the violent death of Colm Horkan, who served his community — us — in the uniform of An Garda Síochána.

So you might not have noticed, in the midst of it all, the death, aged 92, of an extraordinary woman, a woman who made a huge contribution to Ireland.

When Jean Kennedy Smith became ambassador to Ireland, she made it her business to get to know as many people as possible, usually by inviting them to lunch. She commandeered a window table in Roly’s restaurant in Ballsbridge across the road from the US embassy (“the food’s so much better here”, she would say), and invited anyone and everyone for a one-to-one lunch.

I worked for Dick Spring, who was tánaiste and minister for foreign affairs (and enormously involved in secret and difficult activity aimed at ending IRA violence), so I was put on her list. The first time I had lunch with her, I was amazed at how much she knew about stuff that not a lot of people talked about.

I also thought she seemed quite lonely. She told me that she was looking forward to getting to know people better as time went by — meeting them in their homes, befriending ordinary families, that sort of thing.

I told her that would never happen, not because ordinary people wouldn’t want to, but because they’d be afraid to invite someone so famous and important as a sister of JFK’s to their houses.

I met her again a couple of months later and asked how many ordinary Irish homes she’d been invited to. “None,” she replied. On impulse, I asked her to come to dinner in our house. To my surprise, she accepted with alacrity.

Fergus Finlay: Jean Kennedy Smith, a friend to Ireland who left an enduring legacy
Former taoiseach Brian Cowen pictured meeting former American Ambassador, Jean Kennedy Smith and Ted Kennedy's widow, Vicky Kennedy and other members of the Kennedy Family at Government Buildings this afternoon. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins, Dublin.

There wasn’t time -although it was suggested!- to redecorate the house from top to bottom and to buy a new suite of furniture. But we still had a lovely evening, with a couple of close friends of ours who are always the best of company.

It’s well-known now, of course, that Jean Kennedy Smith was instrumental, and significantly so, in the first IRA ceasefire, and that she used her influence to create a vital link between Albert Reynolds and Bill Clinton, when it was needed most.

But here’s another, lesser-known story. In 1995, my daughter Mandy was chosen to represent Ireland in the Special Olympics World Games. They were taking place in New Haven, Connecticut. I borrowed a large amount I couldn’t afford, and off we all went.

Those Games were opened by Bill Clinton and the whole thing was fantastic, except it was utterly chaotic: Transport, parking, accommodation. The people were incredibly friendly and welcoming, but nothing worked quite as it should.

During the Games, I met Mary Davis, who was then head of the Irish Special Olympics programme. (She’s head of the world organisation now, a woman who has been a credit to her country every day of her life.) I distinctly remember saying to her — and she distinctly remembers saying to me — ‘anything the Americans can do, we can do better’.

Fergus Finlay: Jean Kennedy Smith, a friend to Ireland who left an enduring legacy
Jean Kennedy Smith brings the flame at the JFK 50 in New Ross. Picture: Collins Photos

That was the moment we decided to bid for the right to hold the World Games in Ireland.

But how? Since the first, in Chicago in 1968, no World Games had ever taken place outside the US. And, of course, Ireland had never hosted an international event of anything like that size and scale.

When we came home, I asked to see Jean Kennedy Smith. I expected her to say that the whole thing was absurd: Little Ireland hosting a world event? Instead, she said that there was a strong feeling within the Special Olympics that it needed to be “internationalised” better, and that someone had to offer to take it out of the US.

The decision would ultimately be made by her sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of the Special Olympics. Eunice and her husband, Sargent Shriver, would soon be in Dublin for a family wedding, Jean told me. Would I like to meet them?

That’s how my wife Frieda and I got to have afternoon tea with Eunice and Sargent in the US ambassador’s residence in the Phoenix Park — ever so slightly grander surroundings than where we had hosted the ambassador.

She listened, and told us that, for the first time, the Special Olympics might be open to a bidding process: Ireland would be allowed to make a bid.

There were two conditions. Firstly, we had to show how we could do it without imposing a financial burden on the international organisation. We’d have to put money up to prove our worth — and it would be in the millions of dollars, she told us.

And we told her that would be no problem to Ireland. (I can still feel my knees trembling slightly when I said it.)

The next condition was Sargent’s. Sargent was a great American — he had been the founder of the Peace Corps and was universally recognised as a leading humanitarian. And he adored his wife.

“Here’s the thing,” he told us. “Soon, the American treasury will produce — for the very first time — a silver dollar with the image of a woman on it. And that woman will be Eunice Kennedy Shriver.”

He reckoned this silver dollar would be a hot ticket item in Ireland. “How many would you like,” he asked, “as a trial run”?

I remember thinking, at the time, “in for a penny, in for a pound”. Without any authority, I’d already committed Ireland to millions of dollars.

A few silver dollars wouldn’t break the bank. So I told Sargent, heart in mouth, that I’d take 30.

IRELAND didn’t pay for those silver dollars. I did: $750 was what was written on the invoice when a FedEx truck arrived at my house a few days later.

I still have one left, because, oddly enough, I found them impossible to sell and hard enough to give away.

But Jean Kennedy Smith started a process that day by bringing us up to “the Park”. Mary Davis took that process over, and with the wholehearted support of all us, created a life-changing moment for thousands of people when the Games came to Ireland.

And for many others, there was another enduring legacy of Jean Kennedy Smith’s work, because she was instrumental in setting up Very Special Arts Ireland, an offshoot of the organisation she had set up in the US. It’s now called Arts and Disability Ireland. At Jean’s invitation (she was not a woman you said “no” to!), Frieda was one of a number of people who served for several years on its committee.

I still cherish that last silver dollar. Yes, it has Eunice’s image on it, but it will always remind me, with fondness and gratitude, of her sister Jean Kennedy Smith.

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