John F. Kennedy and Ireland

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, America's first Irish-Catholic president, was a son of two families whose roots stretched back to Ireland.

The Fitzgerald family was from the rural County Limerick village of Bruff in western Ireland. Between 1846 and 1855, some of the Fitzgeralds migrated to America to escape the devastating potato famine. Thomas Fitzgerald, born in Bruff in 1823, and Rose Anna Cox, born in County Cavan in 1835, were the parents of John Francis Fitzgerald, who was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on February 11, 1863.

PC370. John F. Kennedy with his father, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., and maternal grandfather, John F. "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, April 1946. Photo credit: Hy Peskin for LOOK Magazine. President's Collection Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

On September 18, 1889, John Francis "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald married Mary Josephine Hannon of Acton, Massachusetts. She was the daughter of Michael Hannon and Mary Ann Fitzgerald, both born in Ireland. Their daughter, Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald, was born on July 22, 1890 in Boston. She was John F. Kennedy's mother.

During the same period that the Fitzgeralds migrated to America, Patrick Kennedy, a cooper, left his ancestral home in Dunganstown, County Wexford, and sailed for the United States. In 1849, he married Bridget Murphy, who was born about 1827 in Owenduff, County Wexford. Nine years later she was a widow with four small children, the youngest of whom, Patrick Joseph Kennedy, would become John F. Kennedy's grandfather.

In November 1887, Patrick Joseph "P.J." Kennedy married Mary Augusta Hickey, daughter of James Hickey of Cork, Ireland, and Margaret M. Field, also of Ireland. Their son, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, was born on September 6, 1888 in East Boston. He was John F. Kennedy's father.


Irish Boston

KFC2706P. Patrick J. Kennedy, paternal grandfather of John F. Kennedy, ca. 1900. Photo credit: Conlin Studio. Kennedy Family Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

The Fitzgeralds and Kennedys lived and worked in Boston, seeking to take advantage of the economic opportunity offered in America. But first, they had to overcome the harsh, widespread discrimination against Irish-Catholic immigrants at that time. The early Kennedys and Fitzgeralds worked as peddlers, coopers and common laborers; later they became clerks, tavern owners and retailers.

By the end of the century, Patrick "PJ" Kennedy and John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, the president's maternal grandfather, had become successful Boston politicians. Honey Fitz served twice as mayor of Boston and as a member of the US Congress.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy relished his Irish heritage. During President Kennedy's historic visit to Ireland in June 1963, he remarked to the people of New Ross, Ireland:

When my great grandfather left here to become a cooper in East Boston, he carried nothing with him except two things: a strong religious faith and a strong desire for liberty. I am glad to say that all of his great-grandchildren have valued that inheritance.

Irish Treasures

On display in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is the Fitzgerald family Bible brought from Ireland by President Kennedy's forebears. A clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court held the large bible as John Fitzgerald Kennedy took his oath of office as 35th President of the United States on January 20, 1961. The Bible is an 1850 edition of the Douay English translation containing a handwritten chronicle of the Fitzgerald family from 1857 and including a record of the birth of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on May 29, 1917.

Among the other gifts on display is a Waterford crystal pedestal vase, depicting an Irish homestead, an immigrant ship, and the White House, representing the family history and heritage of John F. Kennedy. The New Ross Harbor Commissioners presented the vase to President Kennedy during his visit to Ireland in 1963. Other Irish treasures on display include a Carrickmacross lace napkin, one of a set of 36, presented by Irish Prime Minister Sean LeMass.

An Irish Travelogue

Film footage of President Kennedy's visit to Ireland is featured in the Museum, including the president's remarks at Eyre Square in Galway on June 29, 1963, after receiving the Freedom of the City.

"If the day was clear enough, and if you went down to the bay and you looked west, and your sight was good enough, you would see Boston, Massachusetts," President Kennedy said at the time. "And if you did, you would see down working on the docks there some Doughertys and Flahertys and Ryans and cousins of yours who have gone to Boston and made good."

Photographs of President Kennedy and his sisters, Jean Kennedy Smith and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, document their visit to the Kennedy family's Irish homestead in Dunganstown, County Wexford, for a family reunion. On display is the Irish blackthorn walking stick presented to President Kennedy by his cousin Jimmy Kennedy during that visit.

A Profile in Courage

1998 PICA Winners the Peacemakers of Northern Ireland with Caroline Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy

In December 1998, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and the members of its Profile in Courage Award Committee presented a special John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award to eight political leaders of Northern Ireland and one American. The award recognized the extraordinary political courage they demonstrated in negotiating the historic Good Friday Peace Agreement.

The recipients were Nobel Peace Prize winners John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party; as well as Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein; John Alderdice, Alliance Party of Northern Ireland; David Ervine, Progressive Unionist Party; Monica McWilliams, Northern Ireland Women's Coalition; Gary McMichael, Ulster Democratic Party; Malachi Curran, Northern Ireland Labour Party; and former US Senator George Mitchell, the American chairman of the peace talks. The presentation of the Profile in Courage Award to citizens of a foreign nation was unprecedented.

The award presentation was made by Caroline Kennedy, president of the Kennedy Library Foundation; Senator Edward M. Kennedy; and US Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith at a formal ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston.