Saturday 1 October 2016

Hidden history may well be Kennedys' greatest legacy

Published 01/08/2015 | 02:30

Team Ireland’s Clare Nolan from Foxrock and her team mate Laura Mangan from Swords in Dublin celebrate after their win in basketball over Ecuador
Team Ireland’s Clare Nolan from Foxrock and her team mate Laura Mangan from Swords in Dublin celebrate after their win in basketball over Ecuador
Rosemary (at back), Jean, and Robert Kennedy in 1938
Eunice Kennedy Shriver sailing in Dublin in 2003

She was the Kennedy that the world never got to know.

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Rosemary inherited the good looks, but unlike her sibling her beauty wasn't matched with brains.

Her intellectual disability meant that she spent decades in the shadows, while two of her eight siblings rose through the ranks to become US senators, and another - JFK - made it all the way to the White House.

Born in 1918, Rosemary avoided scandal and rarely appeared in the press. She lived quietly until the age of 86 when she died of natural causes. But she had her own story of tragedy that was buried deep.

This week in Los Angeles, her legacy and the vision of her sister - Eunice Kennedy Shriver - changed the lives of families from all over the world.

Grown men cried, mothers shouted about their heart-bursting pride, and celebrities lined up to have their pictures taken.

The stories of triumph were not related to gold, silver or bronze. They were of finishing the 25 metre swim, the bocce game, and the run. The fact that the achievements were made on the world stage only added to the emotion.

It's easy to think of the Special Olympics as a charity - a 'worthy' event with toned-down sports - but in reality it has been and continues to be a game-changer for some of the 300 million people with intellectual disabilities around the world.

As Colin Farrell (inset) got it right this week when he summed up the athletes' approach to the Games: "They aren't messing around. They'd take your head off just to get there and get ahead of you and get the medal."

It started in 1962 when Eunice Kennedy decided to tackle the way 'retarded' people were treated in the US.

She had spent her youth playing sports, swimming and sailing with Rosemary, but saw very few other opportunities for her sister.

As Rosemary grew older she became difficult and suffered serious mood swings. When she reached 23 her father, Joseph Kennedy Snr, signed off on a lobotomy in the hope of "calming her down".

The then rare brain procedure left her incontinent, mute and reduced to the mental age of a two-year-old.

Effectively locked up in an institution, she was 'disappeared' from the public eye. But while the powerful dynasty struggled with the stigma, Eunice set up a summer activities centre called Camp Shriver in her backyard. Within six years it spawned the Special Olympics.

Perhaps it's no surprise that the Kennedy spirit was strong in 2003 when for the first time the Games were hosted outside the US and came to Ireland.

Colin Farrell recalled how Ireland "nearly fell apart under the weight of its own compassion and feelings of love and joy".

Eunice died in 2009, passing the baton on to her children, including Tim and Maria Shriver who spoke at the opening ceremony of the summer games when they returned to Los Angeles this week.

What started in a back garden is now one of the largest sporting events anywhere in the world in 2015, and the single biggest event in Los Angeles since it hosted the 1984 Olympic Games.

It has corporate sponsors like Toyota and Coca Cola, exclusive TV rights have been auctioned to the highest bidder ESPN, and supporters range from Justin Bieber and Stevie Wonder to Michelle Obama.

In his book, Tim Shriver notes how Rosemary failed "to meet any of the expectations that were imposed" on the rest of the Kennedy clan but still "belonged".

"She didn't have to do anything to earn that. Only in retrospect did I realise how, at some level, I envied her deeply. Her presence changed everything," he wrote.

The families who have travelled from 165 countries to offer their love and support in LA came with no expectations. Contrast that with most under-12 matches in community fields around Ireland this weekend - where referees will be abused, children will be left feeling hard done by, and parents will get worked up into a frenzy.

It's not just the athletes who benefit from Special Olympics. It's the parents, the families, the sports fans who have turned out to see what this magic is all about, and even us cynical journalists who often bury emotions so deep they disappear altogether.

Writing recently in Time magazine, Maria Shriver recalled how when she was growing up the house "was filled with political leaders, spiritual leaders, social justice leaders, countless friends of my four brothers and I, and people with intellectual disabilities".

"Thanks to my mother Eunice Kennedy Shriver's fierce will, enormous vision, and relentless drive, I grew up believing that people with intellectual disabilities - like her sister Rosemary - were not to be feared or warehoused in institutions," she said.

Happily things have changed for millions of people with intellectual disabilities, and Ireland can, for the most part, hold its head high as a driving force behind the Special Olympics.

"I think this movement has a certainly solidarity with the Irish tradition and culture and the people of today," Tim Shriver told me this week.

But the challenge isn't over for Ireland or any other country. Shriver says his mother wouldn't want people eulogising her greatness when her mission is not yet complete.

Most people with intellectual disabilities "are still subjected to the worst kind of mistreatment", Shriver said. "We have as much to be proud of as we do to be challenged by."

In the years to come, it may well be that Rosemary Kennedy - the one without a voice or public platform - is the one who has changed the world in a way her famous siblings could never have imagined.

Irish Independent

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