The death of Jean Kennedy Smith on Wednesday last was mourned by people within the New Ross community - for her love for her ancestral homeland and the active role she played in developing the Dunbrody Famine Ship centre, the Kennedy Homestead and bringing the Emigrant Flame to the town has brought prosperity to the very place her great-great grandfather departed from to begin a new life in America.
The last living sibling of US President John F Kennedy, Kennedy Smith, who is survived by two sons, Stephen Jr and William, and two daughters, Amanda and Kym, visited New Ross many times, including in 1963 when the famous tea party was held at Dunganstown. She was key to the development of the Dunbrody Experience Visitor Centre project, working hand in hand with its former CEO Sean Reidy at the turn of the 21st century. There was great excitement in Fethard-on-Sea when it was announced she was going to open the Norman Connection, but sadly she couldn't attend on that great occasion due to business in America.
Although her mother once described her as 'being born so late she was only able to enjoy the tragedies and not the triumphs' of being a Kennedy, as the last survivor of the nine children of Joseph P Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald, Kennedy Smith enjoyed more than her share of both.
Kennedy Smith, who was 92, was the eighth of the nine Kennedy children. Her oldest brother, Joseph Jr, was killed when a drone bomber he was piloting exploded prematurely during the second world war; her sister Kathleen ('Kick') died in a plane crash in 1948; while Rosemary ('Rose'), was kept out of the public's sight after being institutionalised and died in 2005.
Her brother John was elected president in 1960 and assassinated three years later; Kennedy Smith and her husband were with her brother Bobby on his 1968 presidential campaign when he too was gunned down. Patricia, who was briefly married to the actor Peter Lawford, died in 2006. When her sister Eunice died in August 2009, Kennedy Smith elected to stay by her younger brother Edward's bedside rather than attend the funeral; he died 18 days later.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Kennedy Smith ambassador to Ireland. She was following in her father's footsteps as an ambassador and had accompanied President Kennedy to Ireland in June 1963, so her return held special memories for her. She visited New Ross many times over the years, including in 2013 when she was accompanied by three generations of the Kennedy family - some 38 Kennedys in all!
Sean Reidy recalled some of his meetings with her and her visits to New Ross.
He said: 'I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Jean Kennedy Smith. She was a great friend of mine, and a great friend of New Ross and Ireland. In March 1993, I travelled to Washington DC as CEO of the JFK Trust with Paddy Quinn, Jim Walsh and John Hutchinson to meet Senator Edward Kennedy to get his support for the Dunbrody project. We met Senator Kennedy and he really liked the concept and gave us his enthusiastic endorsement.'
On the evening of that meeting, there was an Ireland Fund fundraising dinner attended by Bill Clinton and Albert Reynolds.
'Senator Kennedy was also in attendance and he came over to me and said "I would like to introduce you to my sister Jean". Having exchanged warm greetings the Senator then said "don't tell anyone, but Jean will be nominated by President Clinton to be US Ambassador to Ireland tomorrow."'
This was to be announced at the Patrick's Day celebration in the White House.
'What an important and fortuitous appointment that was for Ireland and New Ross. I worked very closely from there with the Senator's staff to ensure that Jean would get a warm welcome in Ireland and we planned that she would arrive in Ireland on the 30th anniversary of JFK's famous 1963 visit. The senator had to use all his bipartisan skills to get the nomination through the Senate hearings in record time.'
So it was that Mrs Kennedy Smith arrived on June 27, 1993 and headed straight to the Kennedy Homestead in Dunganstown.
'It was a wonderful occasion and both Jean and Senator Kennedy were delighted with the welcome and the organisation of the event. I had passed the test and Ambassador Kennedy Smith became a great friend of New Ross and Ireland. She helped me every step of the way in the development of the Dunbrody Famine Ship and ancillary developments in the town of New Ross. She officiated at the keel laying ceremony, "christened" the ship on the day of the launch. She also unveiled the JFK Statue on the quay and was inducted into the Hall of Fame.'
She also played a pivotal role in the 2013 JFK50 celebrations, including carrying the flame from her brother's grave up the Waterford Estuary on the Navy vessel Aoife to New Ross, where it was used to ignite the Emigrant Flame.
She also helped her cousin Patrick Grennan to get the funding for the new Kennedy Homestead Visitor Centre by twisting the arm of the then Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan.
Mr Reidy said: 'She helped greatly in the transformation of her ancestral home town of New Ross. Her contribution to New Ross was immense. Most recently she was very honoured to have the new bridge called after her mother, Rose.'
Her role in the peace process is well documented and she recounted the fascinating role she played as Ambassador at the Jean Kennedy Smith Symposium (the forerunner to the Kennedy Summer School) which was founded in her honour in 2007.
'When her time as Ambassador was over, the gift that Taoiseach Bertie Ahern chose to give her in appreciation for her work for Ireland was a Waterford Crystal model of the Dunbrody Famine ship which CEO of Waterford Crystal John Foley had kindly donated to the JFK Trust.
'She became a close friend. I have many fond memories of a wonderful spirited, fearless and generous woman. At dheis De go raibh a anam,' Mr Reidy said.
New Ross district director Eamonn Hore said: 'It was with great sadness that I learned of the passing of Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith. Ambassador Kennedy Smith loved Ireland and loved New Ross. I would like to express my own sincere sympathies to the Ambassador's family; daughters Kym and Amanda and sons William and Stephen and all her extended family.'
Mr Hore said he had the great honour of lunching with the Ambassador the day after St Patrick's Day 2016 in her apartment in Manhattan, New York. 'The Chairman of Wexford County Council Tony Dempsey, his lovely wife Gemma and I spent over three hours in her company discussing a myriad of subjects including her wish for the proposed bridge in New Ross. At this lovely informal luncheon she wore the Wexford jersey with great pride for the entire time. She was so looking forward to travelling to New Ross again for the opening of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Bridge. Unfortunately health issues prevented her from taking part in that wonderful day. Instead her final trip to Ireland and New Ross was for yet another wonderful occasion, the lighting of the Emigrant Flame on the quayside in New Ross. On the day after the lighting ceremony a car pulled up outside the Dunbrody, Jean Kennedy Smith emerged, walked to the flame and paused for a brief moment for one last look at the flame which had travelled from her brother's graveside in Arlington Cemetery; and then she turned and left New Ross for the last time. She was a wonderful lady and proud to hail from New Ross.'
Dunbrody centre CEO Sean Connick said: 'She was a great friend to the project and was instrumental in the redevelopment of the Kennedy Homestead in 2008 when Brian Lenihan visited. We got that announcement in the budget of 2009. I had the pleasure of meeting her a number of times and I was always very impressed with her. She was always very bright, articulate woman, who wasn't shy.'
Both Wexford County Council chairman Cllr Michael Sheehan and New Ross Municipal District Cataoireach Cllr John Fleming welcomed the opening of a virtual book of condolences for Kennedy Smith last week, Cllr Sheehan saying: 'Jean Kennedy was a true friend of Ireland, Wexford and New Ross. She was always proud of her home county and ensured all doors and minds were open to her cause when we needed her.'
New Ross Standard