In the Summer of 2017 while in Wexford I went to see the John F Kennedy Homestead in Dunganstown, New Ross, shortly after the hundredth anniversary of his birth, a time when more than the normal fuss was being made. It wasn’t an easy place to find. There weren’t many people there, as we were in the middle of a heatwave and most of the locals and the holiday makers were at the beaches. The place itself was a typically modest farmhouse but some of the outbuildings had been given over to a Kennedy exhibition which you were free to wander around. There were family trees and pictures of people from the early nineteenth century, the usual stuff.
After a while, a man came out to talk to us. He was the grandson of Mrs Ryan, the member of the family to whom JFK was closest. He looked like a typical Wexford farmer and he had the gift of speech and could tell good tales, and brought to life how all of JFK’s great grand-parents were from various parts of Ireland, how they left to better themselves, not just survive, and how one of those great grandparents (from Sligo) instilled a desire to achieve great things.
And then one day JFK was on holiday in Ireland and was staying in Lismore with his sister who had married into a local titled family and he said that he thought the Kennedys were from round those parts and he hired a car and turned up at this very same farmhouse and uttered the words to Mrs Ryan when she answered the door:
‘I think I might be related to you.’
Those events took place before the presidency and a few short years later JFK was back in Ireland receiving the adulation of millions of Irishmen. On his tour he went to Wexford and met Mrs Ryan again. There were lots of pictures of these happy, tumultuous scenes and also some private family photographs.
But it was what the guide said about the time after JFK’s assassination that really stayed with me. Shortly after that awful day in November 1963, Mrs Ryan received a letter from JFK’s wife, Jackie, which is an exhibit. Jackie wrote that her husband had been happiest of all when he was in Ireland, that his Irish connections had meant a great deal to him; that at the time of his death he was wearing his commander in chief medal and carrying his rosary beads which she wanted Mrs Ryan to have, and they are there to be seen to this day. It was a beautifully worded and very moving letter from a widow whose life had been turned upside down and who no doubt had a million things on her mind.
When you see those pictures of the returning hero, the Irish lad made good, waving to the crowds, you wonder if it was all fake news, just a political stunt. After vising the homestead I had no doubt at all that JFK was an Irish patriot and his Irish heritage meant a lot to him. I had no doubt that the president of the United States had a very real and lasting connection with a farmer’s wife from Wexford and his sense of personal identity was rooted in that little farm in Wexford. His wife had no doubt about that either.