Saturday 24 March 2018

Bringing it all back home

It is 50 years since a flush toilet was installed in the ancestral home – now Dunganstown is undergoing change once again, writes Graham Clifford

Graham Clifford

IT'S still a home, but now it's about to become a full-time visitor attraction. After six months of construction, the refurbished Kennedy Homestead in Dunganstown, Co Wexford, is complete after a spend of €1.5m by the Office of Public Works.

Visitors will now be able to relive the American president's trip to his ancestral home in an interactive exhibition.

Treasured correspondence between the White House and Dunganstown will be on display, as well as rare pictures and footage of the visit.

Items given by former first lady Jackie Kennedy will also form part of the exhibit. These include a set of rosary beads used by JFK before his death and his army identification badge.

In one of the farm sheds, the old sitting room where JFK sat by an open fire and chatted with his relations has been carefully reproduced by a set designer.

So intricate is the reproduction that even the same wallpaper used by the Ryan family in the 1960s has been found and placed in the 2013 version.

Visitors will even see the novel chair on which JFK sat – a converted Morris Minor seat; it too has been restored to its former glory.

The exhibition will also display the great achievements of John F Kennedy and other members of the most famous Irish-American family of them all.

Fifty years ago, concrete was laid on the farmyard floor and a flush toilet was installed and a porch built, but since then the farm has been relatively untouched.

For half a century, hire cars have pulled up outside the Kennedy homestead at Dunganstown as inquisitive tourists yearn to discover more about the most iconic leader of the 20th Century.

As they peer through the gate into the farmyard where Mr Kennedy took tea and met his Irish cousins, cameras flash and camcorders roll. But what many forget is that this is a working farm and a family home too.

Patrick Grennan, the son of Josie Ryan and grandson of Mary Ryan, farms the land here and lives with his wife Siobhan and their two young sons in the same two-storey home that JFK visited back in 1963.

For years, Patrick requested assistance from the State in the running of the homestead and a decision was taken to develop the site by the late Brian Lenihan Jnr in 2009.

After a new government came to power, and Mr Lenihan passed away, the mantle was taken up by Brian Hayes, the Minister of State at the Department of Finance.

Keen to protect the existing site and develop it to cater for the tourist market across the Atlantic, Mr Hayes said on announcing the project: "Given the importance of the homestead as an historic site and tourism attraction, the provision of modern visitor facilities is badly needed.

"What better way to promote tourism than to stimulate, in particular, the vast market in the USA where the Kennedy legacy is so revered?"

Patrick Grennan, who tried to run the visitor attraction as a second business but found the demands excessive, said: "It's amazing to think that finally tourists can access the farm in an organised and structured way.

"We've always lived with this – people just walking through the yard. There were people at the gate and I thought this is crazy, I may as well try and make a business out of this.

"It came to the late 1990s and I couldn't really progress the project any further. You really needed a dedicated staff and a visitor centre to make it work. I'd be so busy on the farm that I'd struggle to find time to stand there and chat to visitors.

"It was getting to the stage where I considered closing the homestead. All the politicians were telling us what a great job we were doing but it was just impractical with so much else going on in our lives."

The contract for the extensive project was awarded to Mythen Construction Ltd of Foulksmills, Co Wexford, costing just over €880,000 (excluding VAT).

Existing outbuildings were demolished so the single-storey, stone-clad exhibition centre could be constructed.

A car and coach park was built so motorists will no longer have to pull up on the verge of the narrow road outside if they want to visit the homestead.

"The OPW funded the building work essentially. I will lease the property out for 20 years, but it's a not-for-profit enterprise. As of this week, a JFK Trust will take over the running of the visitor centre," explains Patrick.

"Look, it's not all resting on our shoulders and that will come as a big relief to my family and I."

Irish Independent

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