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Saturday 21 April 2018

The next generation of Kennedys steal show

Family members young and old reunited for historic homecoming

Anna Rowe pours a cup of tea for Caroline Kennedy at the Kennedy Homestead in Dunganstown
Anna Rowe pours a cup of tea for Caroline Kennedy at the Kennedy Homestead in Dunganstown yesterday

Jerome reilly

IT took a poet and a poem to capture the potent symbolism as the Kennedy clan returned home to the land that bore them.

Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney invoked the words of the old English saga Beowulf in a remembrance of the fallen Kennedys, John and Bobby, as he unveiled a bust of their younger brother, the late Ted Kennedy.

And yet while this nation's regard for the older members of the US political dynasty, including Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and JFK's daughter Caroline Kennedy, was evident in a day of celebration in New Ross, at the family homestead in Dunganstown and the JFK Aboretum, it was the younger generation that stole the show.

Jack, Tatiana and Rose, children of Caroline, carry the family good looks and the legacy of history and tragedy in equal measure lightly upon their young shoulders.

Jack, with a look of his late uncle John John about him, has the easy Kennedy charm. Clearly comfortable in the public eye, he mingled easily with the crowds and the procession of women thrusting their daughters towards him for a photographic memento.

Fifty years ago this month, his grandfather told the people of Ireland: "And I certainly will come back in springtime."

But he never did. That hope was unrealised, ended with an assassin's bullet five months later.

And so midsummer 2013 and the return of the Kennedys to their ancestral home at Dunganstown, Co Wexford. The town of New Ross in best bib and tucker, the Stars and Stripes fluttering on lamp posts and the bands striking up a rousing chorus.

It might have descended into shlock, an over-sentimental journey into paddywhackery playing to the worst stereotypes of ourselves and the 35 million Americans who claim, with occasional bombast, Irish heritage.

Yet the JFK50 celebrations succeeded in conveying a powerful symbolism and gave pause to reflect on four short days in 1963 when a son of this soil brought a message of hope and convinced us of our own resilience, courage and perseverance.

As President Kennedy told a hushed Dail, which included among its number Deputy Henry Kenny, father of the current Taoiseach:

"I certainly believe that your future is as promising as your past is proud and that your destiny lies not as a peaceful island in a sea of troubles, but as a maker and shaper of world peace."

We might feel, 50 years on, that for now at least, our future holds precious little promise; but we can still welcome old friends and offer warm and heartfelt hospitality to guests who cross the threshold.

Bobby Kennedy's eldest child, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and her husband David linked arms with the late senator's son Douglas and Caroline's cousin, Sydney Lawford, and her husband Peter.

All, including a phalanx of some 30 members of the extended Kennedy family, gathered around Jean Kennedy Smith, the clan matriarch and sister of JFK, who, as US ambassador to Ireland, played her own unique role in the peace process.

For Caroline, there was the added poignancy of revisiting the farmhouse and homestead where she spent two idyllic days in the summer of 1967 with her brother John F Kennedy junior.

Four years after their father's assassination, the siblings arrived in Dunganstown with the full media glare. But they were enchanted by the working farmyard, with ducks and piglets and calves, and returned for a private visit the following day to be with their cousins. They saw that the other children ran barefoot and, much to the chagrin of the Secret Service detail, they too ran barefoot.

The two Kennedy children grew up but now only Caroline is left. John Kennedy jnr – or John John as he was was known – was killed when his Piper Saratoga plunged into the ocean off Martha's Vineyard in 1999. For Caroline, this visit was as much about her brother as her father and uncle.

As Kathleen Kennedy Townsend put it: "That makes everything sadder and tougher. John Kennedy knew himself that every moment in life is precious. For us, as Kennedys, we've grown up with knowing how precious life is. The Irish understand that because they've gone through so many wars and pain. You know that every moment has to be precious."

The Taoiseach was joined in New Ross by Minister of State Brian Hayes in welcoming the Kennedys to the JFK Arboretum for a rededication ceremony and to view a major new permanent exhibition on the Kennedy presidency.

Before that, there was the official opening of the new facilities at the homestead site, which includes a new exhibition centre to display the achievements of the extended Kennedy Family and a bust in honour of the memory of Senator Edward Kennedy.

The new exhibition in the JFK Arboretum celebrates the Kennedy presidency and contains some fascinating items that recall the era.

As the visiting party arrived at the homestead site, there was a guard of honour from the class of '63 from Ballykelly National School – the children who greeted President Kennedy all those years ago, including sisters Marie and Alice Dempsey.

"What I remember most was how glamorous they all were. The president looked like he was from another planet, he was so handsome. The tan and the smile and I remember his beautiful hands," said Alice.

There were speeches, of course. Caroline said: "It is truly wonderful to be able to return here with my own three children to Dunganstown.

"Our story is more than a physical journey . It is a testament to the power of hope to change the world."

Later in the day in New Ross, thousands of people lined the route for the parade of the Emigrant Flame – lit from the Eternal Flame at JFK's grave in Arlington cemetery last week.

It was carried ashore from the 'LE Orla' by former ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, accompanied by music and performance from writer Colm Toibin, Judy Collins, Michael Londra and the American Spiritual Ensemble and a host of others.

The flame was carried in a relay involving members of the US Peace Corps and Special Olympics Ireland. Dancer Michael Flatley narrated the journey of the flame and the emigrant experience.

At the end of the relay the flame was handed to Taoiseach Enda Kennedy and members of the Kennedy family to light the Emigrant Flame monument – a symbolic globe encasing the roots of an Irish oak tree surrounded by a circle of black granite engraved with a mariner's compass.

But before it was lit there was another passing of the flame when Jack Kennedy Schlossberg, just 20, delivered a bravura speech which brought silence to the crowd of several thousand. The light shone in the voice of the grandson of the man who visited these shores 50 years ago.

To close the night the strains of Amazing Grace rang out over the quayside from where the Kennedy ancestors left for America – where their children's children found tumult, triumph and tragedy in equal measure.

Irish Independent

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