Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

JFK planned to return to Ireland to see his relatives privately, but it wasn't to be

US President John F Kennedy having tea with his  second cousin Mary Ryan (centre) and her daughter Josephine Ryan during a visit to the farm at New Ross in 1963
US President John F Kennedy having tea with his second cousin Mary Ryan (centre) and her daughter Josephine Ryan during a visit to the farm at New Ross in 1963

John F Kennedy was planning to make a private family visit to his cousins in Ireland before he was assassinated, his relatives have revealed.

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

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

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

Her 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."

His wife Jacqueline fulfilled the wish of her husband in 1967 by returning to the homestead with their children Caroline and John.

JFK's visit to the ancestral homestead in June 1963 led to tens of thousands of people visiting 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 when he was shot.

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

They were kept in a simple drawer in the farmhouse for years and only this year were put on display.

He said the mementos were a mark of the impact the visit had: "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. Then when he left here, he gave her a big hug. His sisters were amazed that the president was becoming so personal."

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.

"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."

BACKGROUND

John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. The shooting has been linked to various conspiracy theories. While Lee Harvey Oswald was believed to be a lone gunman, fingers have pointed at the KGB and FBI, and even vice-president Lyndon Johnson.

We simply couldn't believe it: last cousin

The last of JFK's Irish cousins has recalled the devastating day news of his assassination reached the rural homestead where the famous 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 paid them a 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," he said, "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 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.

"The anniversary will bring it all back to us again," Pat said.

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