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Celestine shines new light on JFK ancestor

New research into life of JFK's great grandmother Bridget Murphy


President John F Kennedy

President John F Kennedy

Celestine Murphy, senior librarian

Celestine Murphy, senior librarian


President John F Kennedy

The true story of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy's great grandmother Bridget Murphy which was shrouded in mystery and myth for over a hundred years, was revealed for the first time by Wexford county senior librarian, historian and genealogist Celestine Murphy at the Kennedy Summer School in New Ross last weekend.

Bridget Murphy came from grinding poverty in a tiny house on a farm of less than 30 acres at Cloonagh, Gusserane, Ballycullane in the 1800's before emigrating to America.

Up to now, nobody was able to pinpoint with any degree of certainty where Bridget Murphy was born, how she got to Boston, when she married and how she worked her way from having nothing to become a leading businesswoman.

Supported by existing research including that of R. Andrew Pierce in the US, Wexford woman Celestine has been able to conclude that there would not have been a Kennedy dynasty or a President Kennedy, without the tenacity, work ethic and endurance of Bridget who was unable to write but could read. She managed to survive and bring up her family against terrible odds at the time.

She was widowed after nine years of marriage to Patrick Kennedy, a cooper from Dunganstown, County Wexford whom she had married in Boston in September 1849. She raised four of five children, Mary, Johanna, Margaret and Patrick Joseph, JFK's grandfather, on her own on Noddle Island, one of the many islands that made up East Boston's dockland. Her third child John died in infancy of cholera.

Her neighbours were mostly exiles from Italy, middle Europe and Ireland who lived in poverty in over-crowed tenement-style houses and died young, mainly of consumption.

Celestine has discovered that Bridget was born about 1821 at Cloonagh, near Gusserane Ballycullane, Co. Wexford to parents Richard Murphy and Mary Barron. She was born in a house which was actually 'a single room' described in Griffith's valuation house books of twenty years later in 1845 as 36 feet long by 16 feet deep and 11 feet high. She died in 1888 in East Boston, aged 67.

Celestine found that following her marriage, Bridget and her husband Patrick Kennedy, moved to several different addresses in the East Boston area. Patrick's skills as a cooper who could make and repair wooden churns, buckets and caskets, were sufficient to keep the family from poverty but when he died in 1858 Bridget was left with four young children to rear on her own without an income.

She took lodgers into her home, one of whom was a daughter of her sister Catherine Roche of Wexford. Celestine's research uncovered three previously unknown sisters of Bridget. Catherine Murphy Roche and Anne Murphy Kennedy had married in Wexford and raised families there. Catherine and Anne went to live in Salem, Massachusetts about 20 miles north east of Boston. A third sister Johanna was listed in the 1901 Census as living in Cloonagh.

Bridget's rise from poverty in the 1850s to relative prosperity in the 1880s was an indication of her amazing tenacity and resilience.

She became the principal of a grocery, a variety store and a bakery. Her daughters became seamstresses. Her son Patrick ultimately became a Massachusetts congressman and later a state senator.

His eldest son Joseph, Bridget's grandson, and Joseph's wife Rose Fitzgerald were the parents of John Fitzgerald Kennedy who became President of the United States of America.

Celestine's research which has been verified by professional genealogist John Grenham, took on a direction that she did not expect at the outset and led to a greater understanding of the Kennedy matriarch's roots and her epic journey from the small townland of Cloonagh to the city of Boston, Massachusetts.

According to Celestine, her research was founded on the work of R. Andrew Pierce, a Boston-based professional genealogist who was a speaker at the 2013 Kennedy Summer School in New Ross. 'In a published article on the Murphy and Barron families, Pierce offered persuasive evidence that the parents of Bridget Murphy were Richard Murphy and Mary Barron and that they lived, at least from 1834, in Cloonagh, Ballycullane'', she said.

'Taking Pierce's research as a starting point, I searched the Massachusetts death records for anyone who also had Richard Murphy and Mary Barron listed as parents. This search produced the names of two women were were possible siblings of Bridget - Ann Murphy Kennedy and Catherine Murphy Roche, both of whom died in Massachusetts in the 1890's. I then traced both women back to Wexford and to the Roman Catholic parish of Ballycullane and also established their connection with Bridget. As a consequence of this research, a third sister, Johanna, was discovered in the 1901 census, residing in Cloonagh'', said Celestine.

Wexford People