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The Kennedy Curse
THE UNINTENTIONAL CRIME
IN THE FAINT PEWTER LIGHT of an Irish dawn, a young man riding bareback on an old gray draft horse emerged from a fogbank on the outskirts of New Ross, a river port south of Dublin. A cold, hard rain pelted the sides of his horse, and the fog roiled up above the treetops, concealing the road ahead. A stranger might have hesitated to proceed any farther for fear of getting lost, but the young man knew the countryside like the back of his hand. He was a local lad, and the sum total of his life's experience, along with the memory and bones of his ancestors, was encompassed within a fifteen-mile radius of the town.
He made his way through the maze of fogbound alleys, and when he came to the stone wharf, he dismounted and tethered his horse to a post. His large hands were cut and callused, a sign that he worked at a trade requiring sharp instruments. Beneath an untidy shock of reddish brown hair, his pale blue eyes looked upon the world with an odd mixture of fear and defiance.
Because he was Roman Catholic, no baptism certificate existed to fix the precise date of his birth (at the time, only Protestants were considered deserving of that privilege), but according to family tradition,he was born in Dunganstown, County Wexford, in 1823, which made him twenty-six years old. Though we possess only the barest scraps of information about this young man, it is important for the purposes of our inquiry into the Kennedy Curse that we try to piece together his story from the accounts of family members, written and oral histories, and Irish folklorists.
His name was Patrick Kennedy, and on this foggy February morning, he was about to leave his family and the tangled web of personal relationships in Ireland that had sustained him and given his life meaning, and take his chances in America. Once in Boston, Patrick would marry, have children, then die of consumptionall within the space of nine years. In that brief period of time, he became the founding father of the greatest political dynasty in American history. Through his bloodline, he gave America its first Catholic President, three U.S. senators, a U.S. attorney general, two members of the House of Representatives, two additional presidential contenders, and the dream of a golden age called Camelot.
In years to come, people would assume that Old Joe Kennedy"the ruthless tycoon, with his film star mistress Gloria Swanson, his fortune carved from bootlegged booze, and his purchased political respectability" was responsible for the Kennedy Curse. However, as we shall see, the seeds of the family's destruction were planted long ago in the unforgiving soil of famine-stricken Ireland.
That fateful morning Patrick Kennedy made a very odd sight indeed.
He was dressed in a cocked hat with the brim folded up against the crown and a swallow-tailed coat with long, tapering tails at the back. The coat was too narrow for his broad shoulders and the sleeves too short for his arms. He probably had no idea that his outfit, the height of fashion during the time of Napoleon, had gone out of style more than thirty years before. These shabby discards, which he had bought from an itinerant peddler for a few pennies, were all he could afford for the journey he intended to take far beyond the tidewater of New Ross.
In preparation for his trip, he had been visiting friends and family to bid them farewell. His first stop had been at the chapel, as the local Catholic church was called, where he received a blessing from the parish priest, Father Michael Mitten, who no doubt quoted from 2 Corinthians: "Weep sore for him that goeth away: for he shall return no more, nor see his native country."
He paid a parting call on the Glascotts, the Protestant family that held Whitechurch Parish and much of the surrounding land and were landlords of the Kennedys and other Catholic tenants. The Glascotts were themselves tenants of an even larger estate owned by the Tottenhams. But Patrick did not have to remove his cocked hat and bow his head to the Tottenhams, for they lived in England and did not deign to dirty their boots with the soil of Ireland.
Patrick had come to New Ross this day to say good-bye to his fellow workers at the Cherry Brothers Brewery, where he had been apprenticed for the past several years as a cooper, learning to carve casks and barrels. While he waited in the fog for the brewery to open, he could hear the creaking timber of sailing ships on the River Barrow and a distant watch bell striking the half hour.
At some point he became aware of a rustling sound on the cobblestones near where he stood. At first, he mistook the noise for a flock of seagulls. Then he realized that the entire street was stirring with homeless people, awakening from a night's sleep.
He watched them stand and stretch. "The barely human shapes," reported one observer, "were so emaciated, bones seemed to be held together by nothing more than skin." A few shrunken things that resembled children huddled near the entrance of the New Ross workhouse, their mouths stained green from eating grass.
The year was 1849, and it was the fourth consecutive winter of a mysterious blight that had destroyed the potato crop of Ireland. Without potatoes, the staple of their diet, people could not survive, and Ireland was in the grip of a great hunger.
An estimated million people had died of starvation and disease,although no one knew the precise number. Perhaps another 2 million had emigrated to England, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Columns of weary refugees, evicted from their homes by landlords, wandered the roads without aim or purpose. Looking back from the perspective of our era, a writer noted that the Irish Famine represented "the greatest concentration of civilian suffering and death in Western Europe between the Thirty Years' War and World War II."
Patrick Kennedy had witnessed sights of such unimaginable horror that he and his descendants would be haunted for generations by the memory. He had seen desperate people fighting with rats over the half-eaten flesh of decomposing corpses. He had watched as emaciated bodies were dumped into mass graves from reusable coffins with trapdoors. He had been present when a starving mob besieged the New Ross workhouse while nearby a convoy of English soldiers guarded the loading of surplus butter, eggs, wheat, barley, pork, and beef earmarked for shipment to the dining tables of England.
With Ireland transformed into a vast charnel house, Patrick had decided to join the exodus to America. Unlike those who chose to uproot themselves from other European countries for the promise of the New World, he did not view himself as a voluntary emigrant. In Irish mythology, being cast adrift on the ocean was punishment for a crime committed unintentionally. Patrick believed that he was being punished by the deceitful and treacherous English for the unintentional crime of being Irish.
Ireland's English overlords did not see it that way, of course. Conveniently enough, they believed that the Famine was God's punishment for Irish sins. "Ireland," declared a Protestant landlord, "is under the curse of God and will be till she is delivered from the curse of Popery."
In London all funds for Irish famine relief were controlled by one man, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Charles Edward Trevelyan. He was a typical Victorian Englishman: self-righteous, devoutly religious, "and not noted for his admiration of the Irish." Trevelyan excused his failure to take bold action in Ireland on the grounds that"government should not meddle" with the natural laws of supply and demand, "for the market [is] nothing less than a reflection of God's will."
Some Catholics agreed that the Famine was a well-deserved scourge"a calamity with which God wishes to purify ... the Irish people," as the archbishop of Armagh put it. But most concurred with a band of young Catholic professionals, journalists, and poets who called themselves Young Ireland and scoffed at the idea that the Famine was a visitation of Providence.
"The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine," thundered the celebrated Irish firebrand John Mitchel.
In his newspaper, the United Irishman, and in his bestselling books, Jail Journal and The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps), Mitchel framed the context of the Famine for Patrick Kennedy and countless other Irishmen, both at home and abroad. Mitchel portrayed Ireland as a virtuous nation locked in mortal combat with an evil empire hellbent on genocide. Every Irish generation since the Great Rebellion of 1798 had risen up against the English, wrote Mitchel, and it was the responsibility of succeeding generations to pay a debt to the patriot dead until Ireland was rid of its oppressors.
This unquenchable desire for revenge would fuel the Kennedys' ambition for the next century and a half.
The Famine was a direct assault on Irish masculinity, for it undermined the Irishman's confidence in his manly responsibility to feed and protect his family. Along with other Irishmen, Patrick Kennedy embraced Mitchel's romantic myth, for it helped relieve him of an overpowering sense of guilt.
Guilt found fertile soil in Patrick's Irish soul. For as long as he could remember, he had been afflicted by an overabundance of it, as though he personally bore the blame for Christ's Passion and Crucifixion. Irish boys like Patrick were taught from childhood that they owed God an eineaclann, or blood fine, because they were born inOriginal Sin. When Patrick used the Lord's name as an oath, Jesus suffered, and when he succumbed to the weakness of the flesh and did something bad, "Jesus's wounds were reopened and bled anew."
Patrick paid dearly for his guilt. Like oppressed people everywhere, he internalized the worst prejudices of his oppressors. Without being aware of it, he accepted the English caricature of the Irishman as an apelike creature, "a slouched simian brute." One Irish writer declared that the Famine wrought "the most dismal change in the people themselves," leaving "a new race of beggars, bearing only a distant and hideous resemblance to humanity," who were "mutilated" and emasculated by their English masters.
In the words of the eminent Irish historian Kevin Whelan, the Famine would eventually "melt like the snows in the Northern Sea." But the memory of his humiliation and powerlessness during the Great Famine flowed in the veins of Patrick Kennedy.
Out of Patrick's suffering came a distinct breed of Kennedy men, ones who buried their feelings of self-loathing and indulged in compensatory fantasies of omnipotence. They masked their melancholy and cynicism with maudlin poetry, sentimental songs, and cruel wit; they employed charm and cool detachment as a way of exerting power over others; they tested themselves, pushed themselves beyond the limit, often risked their very livesall in an effort to prove that they were special and could get away with things that others could not.
Though not as dirt-poor as most of his neighbors, Patrick Kennedy was painfully aware of his limited prospects in Ireland. His father was dead; his eldest brother, John, had passed away long before the potato crop failed; and the middle brother, James, was in line to inherit the family's entire thirty-five acres. As the youngest son, Patrick would receive nothing to support himself and a family. That was why he had become an apprentice cooper.
According to a story that has been handed down, Patrick was long on ambition and short on scruplespersonality traits that would skip a generation and reappear with a vengeance in Patrick's ruthless grandson,Joseph Kennedy. Not long before he left Ireland, Patrick agreed to a "made match," or arranged marriage, to a woman he was not in love with. She was the daughter of a family named Welch, who were reputed to be quite prosperous. When Patrick visited them, he was pleased to note that their farm was teeming with animals of every kind, including numerous horses and cattle.
The wedding took place in due course, and the marriage was consummated on the first night. But when Patrick woke up the next day, he discovered that all the animals were gone. It turned out that the Welches were as poor as the Kennedys and had borrowed the animals from a rich neighbor to impress Patrick and trick him into marrying their daughter.
No record of this marriage can be found. Civil registration of Roman Catholic marriages did not take place in Ireland until 1864, fifteen years after Patrick left. Catholic marriage registers were notoriously slipshod and unreliable. Some historians suspect that the union between Patrick and the Welches' daughter was annulled. Others wonder if it ever took place.
Nor can anyone vouch for the authenticity of another popular tale concerning Patrickthat he borrowed a large sum of money, using as collateral the handsome dowry he expected to receive from his wife. By the time he realized the truth about his in-laws' pitiful financial condition, Patrick had already spent a portion of the borrowed money and was unable to repay the loan.
Facing the prospect of debtor's prison, Patrick returned home to Dunganstown. He found the cottage walls covered with posters from Her Majesty's Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners. English landlords were eager to rid themselves of tenants in order to convert inefficient small farms and potato plots into profitable pastures for cattle. A quarter of a million copies of the Emigrants' Guide were distributed to the Irish peasants, and it is quite likely that Patrick read this pamphlet, with its description of the wonders awaiting emigrants in America.
As luck would have it, one of Patrick's best friends, Patrick Barron,his cousin, had gone to America and settled in Boston. Barron sent back letters praising America as a land of "golden opportunity." Such emigrant letters, along with generous cash remittances from America, were flooding Ireland in the middle of the nineteenth century, and they helped persuade Patrick that emigration was the best way for him to avoid going to prison for his delinquent debt.
Before Patrick Barron left for America, he introduced his friend Patrick Kennedy to his cousin Bridget Murphy. Bridget's family, who were poorer than the Kennedys, lived on the south side of the legendary hill Slieve Coillte in the townland of Cloonagh. Patrick lived on the north side of the hill in Dunganstown, fifteen miles awaythe so-called marriage field within which most of the local matches were made.
Bridget was a highly intelligent woman whose ambition burned as brightly as Patrick's. However, without a suitable dowry, she had no hope of attracting an eligible husband. Once her family was evicted by the landlord, which seemed to grow more likely with each passing day of the Famine, Bridget would be forced to join thousands of other semiliterate, unmarriageable Irish girls who crossed the Irish Sea to Britain and sought employment as factory workers in bleak Dickensian sweatshops or as maids with English families.
When Patrick told Bridget that he was planning to flee Ireland and emigrate to America, she saw her chance to escape a dreadful fate. But first she had to convince him to take her along. Though it was customary in Ireland for girls to guard their reputations as zealously as their chastity, Bridget took the lead in courting Patrick.
On fair days, she walked the fifteen miles from Cloonagh to Dunganstown to be alone with Patrick on the Lookout, the highest point on Slieve Coillte. There, they were safe from Father Michael Mitten, the parish priest who stalked the countryside with a large blackthorn shillelagh, hunting for unchaperoned couples.
As Patrick talked about his dream of starting life over in America,he and Bridget could look down from Slieve Coillte and see most of County Wexford and beyond: the Saltee Islands in the east, the brooding blue Comeragh Mountains to the west, and in between, the patchwork of fields in countless shades of green partitioned by hedgerows. It was a landscape of heartbreaking beauty, and as Bridget had hoped, Patrick fell in love with her.
Patrick kept his feelings secret from his mother and brother, who surely would have disapproved of a union between cousins, however distant. When Patrick completed his apprenticeship at the Cherry Brothers Brewery, he bought four tickets for passage to Liverpool, one for himself and three for the MurphysBridget, her mother, and her father. To conceal Patrick's plan, it was agreed that the Murphys would travel separately from him. He would meet them in Liverpool, and together they would board a packet liner and cross the Atlantic to Boston, where Patrick would marry Bridget.
The shipping office where Patrick booked their passage is still standing in New Ross along the banks of the River Barrow, a wide, deep stream that in days past could handle the 500-tonners that came up from the sea. The four tickets to Liverpool cost about eighty dollars, a considerable sum of money back then, and certainly more than a poorly paid apprentice was likely to have saved. The second leg of the tripfrom Liverpool to Bostonwould be even more expensive.
Where did Patrick get the money?
A story persists to this day in New Ross, not far from where Patrick's descendants still tend the fields of the original Kennedy homestead, that he bought the tickets with the money he had borrowed against his first wife's dowry. Had that marriage been annulled by the Church? Or was Patrick on his way to becoming a bigamist?
History is unable to answer these questions.
What seems certain, however, is that Patrick grubstaked his new life in America with embezzled funds.
After he had said his farewells to the lads at the Cherry Brothers Brewery, Patrick returned home to help his mother and brother James prepare for a party in his honor. The next morning he would sail for Liverpool and board a ship there for America. But that night, the entire village would share his last hours on Irish soil in a ritual known as an American Wake.
The allusion to a burial ceremony is not coincidental. Emigration is regarded by the Irish as a kind of death. There is no word in Irish for emigrant. Instead, the Irish use deorai, which means "exile" and comes from the Old Irish word deoraid, a person without a family, an outsider, a stranger, an outlaw.
At about four o'clock, neighboring families began arriving at the cottage. The men stuffed their caps into their jacket pockets and headed for the bedroom to the left of the kitchen, where there was a table laid with refreshments, including a barrel of stout and some homemade "mountain dew," as the illegal alcohol was called. The women crowded into the kitchen. They squeezed onto benches and chairs and, in some places, piled three-deep on one another's laps, the flesh of their thighs pressed together.
After they were settled, an old woman began to keen.
"O choneh! ... O choneh! Ohhh!"
Before long, she was joined by a chorus of other female voices.
"O CHONEH! ... O CHONEH! OHHH!"
No matter how many times Father Michael Mitten had heard the shrill, piercing wail of the Irish keen, it made his blood run cold. He had been ordered by his bishop to discourage the heathen practice of keening and had specifically admonished Patrick's mother, Mary Johanna Kennedy, that the Holy Father in Rome, Pius IX, preferred "prayers to keens and kneeling to mourning."
Father Michael put down his plate, which he had heaped with buttered raisin cake and stiff Wexford Bay herring, and went into the kitchen. A bright fire, made of turf, beanstalks, and sticks, crackled in the fireplace at the gable end of the house. He approached Mary Johanna and told her to stop her bawling.
Now, didn't she have a fine voice? he asked. Well, then, she should use the voice God gave her, and give them a song.
Mary Johanna looked across the room at Patrick. He was standing next to the fireplace. His cheeks had turned apple red from the heat of the fire and the half-empty cup of poteen (moonshine) in his callused hand. In the pocket of his swallow-tailed jacket, he carried a little sack of salt that had been given to him by his mother as a talisman against evil. Sewn into the lining of his tapered breeches was a small piece of linen soaked in menstrual blood, a love charm placed there by Bridget Murphy before she left for Liverpool, to ensure that he would remain faithful to her.
A fiddler played a tune, and Patrick's mother sang. Silence followed her mournful song. Then someone said, "Did you hear the story of the woman who had a husband who was very fond of the drink?"
There was general agreement that no one had ever heard such a story, which of course was not true, since jokes of that nature were well known, as Diarmaid O'Muirithe and Deirdre Nuttall note in their book, Folklore of County Wexford.
"Well, then," said the storyteller, "nearly every night he'd come home drunk. At last, his wife went to the priest to complain and ask his advice. The priest told her to get a sheet and put it over her head and wait for the husband and he coming home drunk some night. So she went to a lonely part of the road and waited for the husband and he coming home. The priest told her to say she was the devil, if her husband spoke to her.
"The husband came along the road and he well oiled. When he saw the white figure and heard it groaning, he said, 'Who are you?' 'I'm the devil,' she cried. 'Well,' says he, 'I'm married to your sister.'"
As laughter filled the room, Patrick's friends dragged an unhinged door across the yellow clay floor and placed it in front of the fireplace. The fiddler struck up a lively tune, perhaps "The Kilrane Boys," and soon young couples were step-dancing on the door, making an unholy racket.
Patrick watched the dancers for a few minutes, then slipped out of the cabin and went into the yard. It was growing dark, and the hired man was hustling the animals into the shelter provided by one of the rough-hewn outhouses. The horse and pig had little bits of red thread tied around their tails to ward off the evil eyea tradition that has been recorded in the archives of the Irish Folklore Commission. The other outhouse contained sacks of malting barley that the Kennedys grew for the brewery in New Ross, where a bark named the Dunbrody weighed at anchor, ready to take Patrick away from Dunganstown.
As a child, Patrick had wrestled with his elder brothers, John and James, in the soft earth of the farmyard and had learned not to cry when they hurt him. When he was seven or eight, his parents had been compelled by a newly enacted British law to send him to a nearby primary school, where the teachers refused to speak to the children in their native language. Only English was permitted.
Patrick's father, who died when his son was eleven, had been a florid character who had an opinion on every subject under the sun. His proudest boast was that the Kennedys were descended from kings. All Irishmen embraced the grandiose notion that they were heirs to a throne, but Patrick's father claimed that he could actually trace the Kennedy lineage back more than eight hundred years to Brian Boru, who was born Brian Mac Cennedi (pronounced "Kennedy"). Brian was the high king of Ireland who defeated the Norsemen at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.
The original seat of the O'Kennedy clan was in East County Clare at a place called Glen Ora, the name President John F. Kennedy would one day bestow on the home he rented in the horse country of Virginia. Brian Boru's reign in Glen Ora was a period of unparalleled peace and prosperity, a kind of Irish Camelot. Patrick's father said that whenever a cow lay down in a field in Ireland, she sighed for the good life in the time of Brian.
According to Patrick's father, the O'Kennedys were conspicuous for their height, the splendor of their dress, and their willingness totake risks. Brian Boru's brothers, Mahon and Donnchuan, died during raids on neighboring landholders, which were regarded in ancient times as nothing more than "a violent form of sport." Hotheaded Kennedys did not spare their own relatives. In 1194 Murough O'Kennedy was slain by Loughlain O'Kennedy. And in 1599 an O'Kennedy of Ballingarry seduced a sister of an O'Kennedy in Lorrha, who slew his cousin in revenge.
Back in those days, it was believed that the murder of a near relative was a fionghal, or fratricide. Anyone who violated this taboo risked bringing geasa, or curses, upon himself and his family. "The more eminent a person was, the more geasa he had," notes Peter O'Connor, an expert on Irish mythology, in Beyond the Mist. Too many geasa brought about an untimely death. Later some people came to the conclusion that the Kennedy Curse stemmed from an excess of these geasa.
Patrick's father was as superstitious as the next man. He believed in the miraculous curative powers of saints, holy wells, and certain priestsespecially those who had "a taste for the wee drop" or who had been removed from their pulpit and "silenced" by their bishops. He believed there were dangerous places all over the landscape, lonely sites that were portals to the world of fairies, banshees, and leprechauns. And he believed in curses, a notion that he passed on to Patrick, who in turn would pass it on to generations of Kennedy descendants down to the present day.
Standing in the farmyard, Patrick noticed that the fog was beginning to lift. A few weak rays of the setting sun filtered through the mist, casting a dull glow over Slieve Coillte. Patrick decided to climb to the top one last time.
It was here that he had listened to his father's stories and had come to view his family's sad history as synonymous with that of Ireland. In 1691 the Protestant Parliament in London passed the infamous Penal Laws, history's first recorded example of government-sponsored ethnic cleansing. The Penal Laws, which remained in effectwith some modifications for more than 150 years, made it illegal for Catholics to exercise their religion, receive an education, enter a profession, hold public office, engage in trade or commerce, own a horse of greater value than five pounds, purchase land, lease land, vote, or keep any arms for protection.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century, royal rank was a distant memory for the Kennedys. Distant or not, however, the memory was kept alive by Kennedy men, who believed that their bloodline was inextinguishable and that the Kennedys would someday be restored to their rightful place in the scheme of things.
Patrick's eyes were adjusting to the darkness that had descended on Slieve Coillte. The top of the hill had been sheared off eons ago by a glacier, leaving a broad grassy plateau. It was on this hallowed ground that Patrick's grandfather John Kennedy and his father, who was also named Patrick, joined the army of United Irishmen during the Rebellion of 1798.
On June 4 of that year, five thousand Irishmen under the command of Bagenal Harvey had gathered on Slieve Coillte for the Battle of New Ross. Among them, Patrick's father and grandfather stood shoulder to shoulder in close file, wielding twelve-foot-long pikes to fight off cavalry charges by the British Crown garrison.
At one point, the Wexfordmen broke through the British lines, driving the enemy back to the center of New Ross. But after twelve hours of fierce hand-to-hand combat in New Ross, the Irish lost the day. Among the wounded was John Kennedy, Patrick's grandfather (and President John F. Kennedy's great-great-great grandfather), who was cut down by an English musket ball on the quay near the New Ross Bridge. He was rescued by his thirteen-year-old son, Patrick's father, who bound up his wound with a handkerchief, hauled him into a rowboat, and brought him down the River Barrow six miles to Dunganstown.
In the aftermath of the Battle of New Ross, terrible atrocities werecommitted by both sides. The Irish burned a barn in which a hundred defenseless English prisoners were housed. In some of the worst offenses, English soldiers herded Irish families into churches throughout County Wexford, barred the doors, then burned the buildings to the ground. One out of every two adult males in Wexford lost his life, twenty thousand in all.
Patrick's father had the true Irish gift for storytelling. His words stirred Patrick's imagination and left him with a lifelong love of history and a habit of quoting poetry. But then Patrick's father died, leaving him nothing but the bloodstained handkerchief that he had used to bind his father's wound. And as he came of age as a man, Patrick was left in the care of his mother.
To her neighbors, Mary Johanna Kennedy appeared to be a good mother who knew how to keep a well-ordered home. But to Patrick, there was always something feigned and unauthentic about her emotional responses. One moment she was hugging and kissing him and calling him by endearing names; the next she was off doing something else and acting as though he hardly existed.
Patrick felt emotionally cheated by his mother. Yet despite this, he was aware of the intense, clutching relationship that existed between them. He could not explain this paradox, but he knew that he had an urgent need to break the bond. He had to purge himself of any trace of degrading femininity and become a man among men.
In his adult years, Patrick lost no opportunity to praise physical prowess and condemn weaknessa preoccupation he shared with his future great-grandson President John F. Kennedy, who proclaimed that America's "growing softness, our increasing lack of physical fitness, is a menace to our security." Like JFK, Patrick projected an image of independence, courage, and strength that effectively hid his vulnerability from himself and others. His physical posturestraight, stiff, proudproclaimed "I am in control."
"For narcissists," writes Alexander Lowen, "control serves the samefunction as powerit protects them from possible humiliation. First, they control themselves by denying those feelings which might make them vulnerable. But they also have to control situations in which they find themselves; they have to make sure that there is no possibility that some other person will have power over them. Power and control are two sides of the same coin."
With first light, it was time for Patrick to leave for his ship. Family and friends assembled on the muddy road that ran by the Kennedy farm and led down the tree-lined boreen to the port of New Ross. Patrick helped his mother climb into the horse-drawn Mass cart that she used on Sundays to go to chapel. His belongings were loaded on a handcart along with the youngest children. Father Michael Mitten bestowed one last blessing, then everyone set off down the hill. They passed by acres of rotting potatoes that gave off a terrible sulfurous stench.
When they arrived at New Ross, four ships were lined up along the quay, including the Dunbrody, a 176-foot-long, three-masted bark owned by a prominent merchant family named Graves. The Dunbrody, which was named after the Cistercian abbey down river from the town, plied between Liverpool and New Ross, carrying cargo and a complement of passengers. On the deck, Captain John W. Williams supervised the loading of passengers and provisions.
The dock was aswarm with sailors, stevedores, emigrants, friends, families, and hawkers of food and trinkets. But it was remarkably quiet. "Never before could you have been in an Irish crowd like this and not been greeted and shouted at," Walter Macken wrote of a similar scene in his novel The Silent People. "There would be jokes and obscenities flying. Calling and shouting." For once, words seemed to fail the Irish.
Patrick lifted his mother from the Mass cart and set her down on the stone quay. He knelt before her, threw his arms around her voluminous skirt, and asked for her blessing.
As before, Mary Johanna Kennedy's face betrayed no emotion. She placed Patrick's head between her hands and bent to kiss his forehead. Then, all at once, she let out a low moan and collapsed, dragging Patrick with her to the ground. They lay on the cold, wet cobblestones, sobbing and whimpering, rocking back and forth in each other's arms.
"O choneh! ... O choneh! Ohhh!"
The women standing nearby had taken up their keening again. This time, Father Michael made no effort to stop them. He waited several minutes, then stepped forward and helped Patrick and his mother to their feet. The priest was carrying a little bottle of holy water, and he sprinkled a few drops over Patrick.
Patrick crossed himself and wiped away his tears. He shook hands all around and kissed his mother one last time. She began to collapse again, and one of the men caught her in his arms.
Patrick gathered up his two battered old cardboard suitcases and climbed up the gangplank of the Dunbrody. At the top, he stopped, took out his father's bloodstained handkerchief, and wiped his brow. Then, without looking back, he disappeared into the crowd of silent strangers.
The Dunbrody sailed up the mouth of the Mersey River on the morning tide. Perched on the topgallant forecastle, Patrick Kennedy observed dozens of tall-masted ships and steamers sailing in and out of the harbor of Liverpool, the second-largest city in England and, next to London, the commercial capital of the British Empire.
To a country lad like Patrick, who had never seen a town larger than New Ross, Liverpool was the most spectacular sight of his life. We can picture him standing in the frigid February wind on the deck of the Dunbrody, dressed in his threadbare clothes, shivering with fear and defiance as he entered the belly of the British beast.
While Ireland starved, Liverpool had gorged on profits from cotton, tobacco, sugar, and human cargo. The city's merchants had dominated the world's slave trade in the eighteenth century, and when slavingwas abolished by Britain in the early nineteenth century, the shipowners filled their empty slave holds with emigrants. By 1849, the year Patrick Kennedy arrived, the Illustrated London News reported that ships embarking from Liverpool's docks transported more than 150,000 emigrants to the New World, a record number.
As the Dunbrody approached the Clarence Dock, where Irish emigrants disembarked, Patrick Kennedy watched the dockmaster mount the poop of a nearby vessel and hail the surrounding ships to make room for the newcomer.
Drawing closer, Patrick could smell the odor of "brine, bilgewater, and pungent tar of hundreds of wooden ships" in their berths, writes the historian Robert James Scally in The End of Hidden Ireland. Mingling with these aromas was the powerful stench of sewage and human waste that gave Liverpool its nickname, "The Black Spot on the Mersey."
No sooner had the Dunbrody docked than a contingent of uniformed constables trooped aboard with orders to clear the ship as quickly as possible so that she could be prepared for her return trip. The policemen shouted obscenities at the dazed emigrants and chased them off the deck with nightsticks. Patrick Kennedy tumbled down the gangplank into a scene of chaos and confusion.
He was instantly set upon by an army of disreputable dock runners, who acted as agents for passenger brokers, shopkeepers, and boardinghouse proprietors. Known as "crimps," "touts," and "man-catchers," the runners were for the most part Irishmen who had come to Liverpool on earlier ships. Because new arrivals such as Patrick found it hard to believe that men from the auld sod would cheat them, they made easy prey.
The runner who snagged Patrick led him to a boardinghouse in the neighborhood of the Waterloo Dock. For fourpence a night, Patrick rented a tiny space in a smelly, dank cellar that was crowded with a dozen other emigrants. At the time, there were 7,700 such cellars in Liverpool, occupied by 27,000 people. Patrick was given a board tosleep on because, as one landlord explained, "if we gave [the Irish] a bed, we should be obliged to throw it away the next day ... they are so dreadfully dirty."
Patrick had never seen a woman without her clothes on, but in his new underground den, some of the women disrobed, washed, urinated, and defecated in full view of the men. At night they kept him awake with the uninhibited moans and cries of their lovemaking.
Years later, after Patrick settled in Boston and could be persuaded to tell his "crossing story"how he became an Americanhe avoided talking about the month or so he had spent in Liverpool. The Black Spot on the Mersey was his introduction to the savage world of Victorian capitalism and urban poverty that had so horrified Charles Dickens and Karl Marx. The experience left an impression on Patrick's soul that was passed on to his descendants and found expression in President Kennedy's famous remark, "My father told me that all businessmen were SOBs."
Finding Bridget Murphy in the teeming metropolis of Liverpool proved to be a far harder task than Patrick had anticipated. She was not at the lodging house where they had agreed she and her parents would stay. For several days Patrick wandered the streets of Whitechapel and Sailor Town, passing crowded public houses, brothels, and gambling dens, visiting one filthy lodging house after another until he had all but given up hope of finding Bridget. Then one day on Vulcan Street, he stumbled by chance upon the Catholic-run Emigrant Home, and there in this clean, orderly, well-lit place, he found Bridget and her parents patiently awaiting his arrival.
To purchase a ticket for their passage, Patrick was advised to go to Goree Piazza, which was named after the notorious island off the coast of Senegal, where Liverpool ship captains had once taken on their cargoes of slaves. The walls of Goree Piazza were plastered with notices of Atlantic packet ships that sailed on regular timetables. There were no fewer than twenty-two brokers who sold space on these ships and received a commission for each berth they filled. One ofthe ship brokers was Daniel P. Wichell, agent for the White Diamond Line.
"The reputation of this line is very well known in the New England states," Wichell informed Patrick, quoting from a recent newspaper advertisement. "The ships have been built expressly for packets. They sail fast, have spacious berths between decks that are well ventilated, and are commanded by masters of long experience in the trade."
Patrick had some reservations about the White Diamond Line. Only the year before, one of its ships, the Ocean Monarch, had caught fire while at sea, with the loss of 176 lives out of 350 passengers. With limited navigational aids and notoriously incompetent crews, accidents were bound to happen. Between 1847 and 1853, fifty-nine emigrant ships went down, with the loss of thousands of lives.
Disease was an even greater problem. Dysentery, cholera, and typhus decimated the ranks of passengers on the North Atlantic crossing. As a result, before Patrick could board a ship, he had to submit to a medical examination. It took place at a dockside shack called the doctor's shop, where MOs, or medical officers, were paid by the headusually one pound for every hundred passengers examined.
"Are you quite well?" an MO shouted at Patrick from behind a little window. "Show your tongue."
Before Patrick had a chance to comply with this order, the doctor had stamped his ticket.
"If an emigrant could stand, he was deemed healthy," noted a historian. "There were reports of Medical Officers not even looking at the people as they filed past, simply barking out questions without waiting for answers before declaring the examinee fit."
The stamped ticket in Patrick's hand was for steerage class on the SS Washington Irving, a White Diamond Line ship that had been built by Donald McKay, one of the most famous shipbuilders of the time. She was a relatively new ship (her keel had been laid in 1845), and Patrick had chosen her because she was said to be heavily sparred and sturdy. Under the command of Captain Eben Caldwell, the WashingtonIrving was scheduled to sail for Boston on the seventeenth of March, Saint Patrick's Day.
When Patrick and the Murphys arrived at the Waterloo Dock at seven o'clock in the morning on sailing day, they found a large crowd waiting impatiently at the gate. Captain Caldwell would not allow the steerage passengers to board the ship until the cargo was stowed away. Finally, the captain gave the signal, and the emigrants rushed forward, pushing and shoving one another to get on the gangplank. They were joined by scores of peddlersorange girls, cap merchants, and dealers in toffee, ribbons, lace, pocket mirrors, gingerbread nuts, and sweetmeats. In the mad scramble, the crew yanked people on board and tossed them like bales of cotton onto the deck.
Captain Caldwell gave orders for the ship to cast off. Those who had not yet made it on board rushed round to the dock entrance, where it was narrow and ships were usually detained for a few minutes. There, the late arrivals climbed up the side of the ship. Many of them fell into the murky waters of the Mersey and had to be fished out. Some drowned.
A steam tug took the Washington Irving to the mouth of the bay. At the bell buoy, the pilot transferred to the tug, along with the stowaways and peddlers, and the tug turned back to port.
The ship's sails were set. And as the crew hauled on the ropes, they sang a halyard chantey.
Far away, oh far away, We seek a world o'er the ocean spray! We seek a land across the sea, Where bread is plenty and men are free.
When he bought the tickets, Patrick Kennedy imagined that he had purchased separate berths for himself and each of the Murphys. But that was not the way steerage passengers were treated.
Four emigrants were stuffed into a dark, boxlike bunk that was sixfeet long and six feet wide, leaving each person with just eighteen inches of shoulder room. Sometimes men and women were berthed together. Sir George Stephen, a well-known philanthropist, once asked a ship's mate how he managed sleeping arrangements for married couples at sea. To which the mate replied, "There is no difficulty as to that; there is plenty of that work going on every night to keep them all countenanced [calm and composed]."
Under a heavy press of canvas, the Washington Irving rounded the Tuskar Rock and then Cape Clear. Soon she was leaving the choppy waters of the Irish Sea for the big rollers of the Atlantic Ocean. What Herman Melville, in his novel Redburn, His First Voyage, called the "irresistible wrestler" of seasickness forced many passengers to remain in steerage. That, "compounded by the lack of sanitation, made conditions on board such vessels horrific," notes Jim Rees in Surplus People. "No doubt, there were those who just lay in their six-by-one-and-a-half-feet space neither knowing nor caring if they would ever reach their destination."
The "well ventilated" accommodations that ship broker Wichell had promised Patrick turned out to be a cramped, dirty space between decks. The living quarters would not be cleaned during the entire voyage. Nor was it possible for passengers to change their clothes or bedding, and the spread of lice soon became a problem.
According to Terry Coleman's chronicle of the North Atlantic passage, Going to America, food rations were stingy and often consisted of a coarse concoction of wheat, barley, rye, molasses, and peas. Some passengers had thought to bring along their own food, but the water they were given for cooking was often contaminated. People did not have enough to eat, creating, in the phrase of historian Robert James Scally, "an almost famine."
The one item that never seemed to be in short supply was grogrum diluted with waterwhich was sold twice a week at an exorbitant profit by Captain Caldwell himself. Many of the sailors got drunk and abused the passengers, especially the women, who were constantly at their mercy.
In bad weather, the hatches were closed, and the air in steerage became pestilential. It was not long before dysentery spread among the emigrants, then cholera and other forms of "ship fever." Each morning, writes a Kennedy biographer, sailors would "call out for the dead bodies and the garbage, haul both up through the hatches, and throw the combined refuse overboard to the sharks that constantly trailed the ship."
For Patrick Kennedy, the agonizing weeks in steerage amounted to a form of bondage. The experience was branded on his memory and would become a permanent part of the Kennedy family mythology. Indeed, in the years ahead, the "coffin ship" on which Patrick and Bridget came to America would be compared by their descendants to the slaves' "middle passage" and the boxcars of the Holocaust.
The comparison to these crimes against humanity is not as extreme as it may appear. Within a period of five short years, the Irish nation had lost more than half its population3 million peopleto starvation, disease, and emigration. Future Kennedys would never allow themselves to feel so powerless again.
Patrick and Bridget stood on deck, staring out to sea. Any minute now, they expected to see America looming over the horizon. Patrick had been told by Daniel Wichell, the Goree Piazza ship broker, that the crossing would take only twenty days, when in fact it could take anywhere from five to twelve weeks, depending on the wind and the weather. No one but Captain Caldwell and his first mate knew the position of the Washington Irving, and they kept that information to themselves.
Then one day the ocean became noticeably calmer and the deck did not heave as much. For the first time, Captain Caldwell ordered the ship to be cleaned from stem to stern. The emigrants scrubbed the steerage and dried the timbers with pans of hot coals from the galley. The captain was determined that his ship should look as though she had made "a safe, clean, and comfortable voyage" when she passed through customs in America.
Late in the afternoon of April 17, nearly five weeks out of Liverpool, one of the lookouts shouted, "Land!" and a speck of coastline appeared on the distant horizon. Patrick and Bridget stayed on deck long past sunset, when a thick haze spread over the ocean and blotted out the moon and the stars. That night they passed the spot off the coast of Martha's Vineyard where, 150 years later, John F. Kennedy Jr.Patrick's great-great-grandsonwould become disoriented in his Piper Saratoga and crash into the sea.
In Boston, Patrick soon found that he had substituted one killing field for another. Within three months of his arrival, a virulent strain of Asiatic cholera swept through Boston's squalid slums, claiming the lives of seven hundred people, most of them Irish. In 1849, the year of Patrick's arrival, Boston's Committee of Internal Health on the Asiatic Cholera inspected one of the city's Irish quarters and observed:
This whole district is a perfect hive of human beings, without comforts and mostly without common necessaries; in many cases, huddled together like brutes without regard to sex, or age ... grown men and women sleeping together in the same apartment, and sometimes wife and husband, brothers and sisters in the same bed. Under such circumstances, self-respect, forethought, all high and noble virtues soon die out, and sullen indifference and despair, or disorder, intemperance and utter degradation reign supreme.
Patrick moved into the coldwater flat of his old friend Patrick Barron, where the two men shared a table, a couple of chairs, a bed, and a black cast-iron stove that supplied heat in the winter and fire for cooking. On Saturday nights Barron poured hot water from a large kettle into a galvanized-iron tub for his once-a-week bath. When he stepped out of the tub, Patrick stepped in and bathed in the same water.
The only indoor toilet for the tenement's thirty families was located in the dirt-floor basement. "No one was responsible for the care of these communal instruments," the sociologist Oscar Handlin has observed, "and as a result they were normally out of repair. Abominably foul and feculent, perpetually gushing over into the surrounding yards, they were mighty carriers of disease."
Unlike most of his countrymen, Patrick had come to America with a trade, and he found work at Daniel Francis's cooperage and brass foundry on Summer Street, not far from Donald McKay's shipyard and the Cunard wharves on Border Street.
"Mr. Francis made beer and water barrels and ship castings," notes a biographer, "and when he saw Patrick's ability with the adze and the croze, he gave the young man a job. The work was twelve hours a day, seven days a week ... . By starting off making beer barrels, Patrick unwittingly began a Kennedy family tradition of being connected with the beer and liquor business that would last for almost a century."
"Of all the immigrant nationalities in Boston, the Irish fared the least well, beginning at a lower rung and rising more slowly on the economic and social ladder than any other group," the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin writes.
They were despised by Boston Brahmins for their ignorance, rural customs, poverty, and Roman Catholicism. They were thought fit only for manual labor. "Even the Negro," writes Richard J. Whalen, "faced less discrimination than the Irishman." "The Negroes," added the Reverend John F. Brennan, "held jobs closed to the Irish, such as cooking and barbering."
Many want ads in the Boston papers read "None need apply but Americans." When Irish men and women showed up for jobs, they encountered notices that read NO IRISH NEED APPLY, which eventually became shortened to NINA. The only jobs available were the most menial and the cheapest. Live-in Irish maids, called "potwhallopers," "biddies," and "kitchen canaries," were paid two dollars a week. UnskilledIrish laborers made about the same wage and were called "clodhoppers," "Micks," and "Paddies."
Constant humiliation only deepened Patrick Kennedy's view of the world as a dangerous place that had to be kept at arm's length. "If anything," wrote Terry Golway in The Irish in America, "America could be worse than Ireland, for here Catholics were a distinct minority in a nation that increasingly took the view that democracy and Protestantism were inseparable."
Even skilled workers like Patrick could not avoid the virulent anti-Catholic nativism that was fomented by the infamous Know-Nothing Party. In 1854, five years after Patrick's arrival, the Know-Nothing Party captured the governor's office and virtually every seat in the Massachusetts General Court. The party harassed Catholic schools, disbanded Irish militia companies, and tried to pass legislation mandating a twenty-one-year wait before a naturalized citizen could vote. All this struck Patrick like a replay of the notorious British Penal Laws in Ireland.
But Patrick Kennedy never regretted leaving his blighted homeland. Within weeks of his arrival in Boston, he married Bridget Murphy. And over the next several years, they had five childrena son who died in infancy; three daughters; and a second son, who lived and was named after his father.
"Nurtured from birth with the doctrine that they have a lien on greatness, the Irish are unable to come to terms with their own powerlessness," notes the historian Thomas J. O'Hanlon.
In America, this outlook created two distinct strains in the Irish character. One type was the compliant, loyal, God-fearing Irishman, an easy-go-lucky people-pleaser who got along by playing by the rules; went to Mass on Sunday and was deeply moved by the depiction of Christ bleeding under his bloody crown of thorns; readily confessed his sins; accepted suffering in silence; and often ended up as a priest or a day laborer, train conductor, garbage collector, policeman, fireman,or some other kind of civil servant who counted the days to retirement on a secure government pension.
The other type was the defiant, unruly, rebellious Irishman, a dark, brooding, frequently manic-depressive character who nurtured a sense of resentment against all established authority; did not show up at church very often, if at all; could not deal with the humiliations of the past and rarely if ever talked about the Great Famine because he did not want it reported that he had not been able to feed his family; considered his primary loyalty to be to his wife and children, not his country; and often became a journalist, scholar, pub keeper, politician, gangster, lawyer, businessman, or secret sympathizer of outlawed Irish rebels such as the Fenians.
Patrick Kennedy was the rebellious sort. Though he eked out a meager existence as a barrel maker and had a wife and four children to support, he contributed his pennies to the cause of Irish independence and was an ardent supporter of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, or Fenians, who used modern methods of terrorism in their fight against the British.
"The British," said Patrick, "understand one thingforce. The only way to get them out of Ireland is to bomb them out."
Patrick was a popular figure in the Irish pubs along Summer Street. Like his father, he was a born storyteller. With an actor's flair for impersonation, he could keep his drinking companions entertained for hours with rousing tales of heroism during the Great Rebellion of 1798.
Everyone said that Patrick Kennedy had a way with words, which was a high compliment indeed, for language was the Irishman's most potent weapon. Patrick kept his weapon honed with sarcasm; he liked to quote John Mitchel, who was a master of mockery and ridicule.
"Now, my dear surplus brethren," Patrick would say, quoting one of Mitchel's most famous passages in "To the 'Surplus' Population of Ireland," "I have a simple, a sublime, a patriotic project to suggest. It must be plain to you that you are surplus, and must somehow be gotrid of. Do not wait ingloriously for famine to sweep you offif you must die, die gloriously; serve your country by your death, and shed around your name the halo of a patriot's fame. Go; choose out in all the island two million trees, and thereupon go and hang yourselves."
"[Sarcasm] was used for offense and defense," writes Peter Quinn, one of the most astute observers of the Irish in America. "It was a weapon to cut down anyone in the community who might think or act like he was better than his peers ... . Such ambition was regarded as a form of treason. Sarcasm was equally a means for dismissing those realms [of WASP culture] as the preserve of frauds and pompous lightweights ... . Sarcasm was a form of subversion, a defensive mechanism of colonized people like the Irish."
In the fall of 1858, Patrick, now thirty-five years of age, fell ill with tuberculosis. His complexion became pale and he lost a good deal of weight, experienced pains in his chest, and began spitting up blood. Bridget insisted that they call a doctor.
By the time the doctor arrived, Patrick had hemorrhaged several pints of blood and was delirious with a high fever. His voice was almost entirely lost, and he could make himself heard only in a whisper when the doctor asked him to describe his symptoms.
"I can't swallow," he said. "I'm starving to death."
Bridget stood in the door, holding their ten-month-old son, who had been named after her husband, Patrick Joseph, and was nicknamed P.J. Peeking from behind her skirts were her three young daughters.
"Please, can you do something for him, Doctor?" Bridget said.
The doctor took Patrick's pulse. It was 124. He gave him some creasote and nitromuriatic acid with cod-liver oil.
Under this course of treatment, Patrick's pulse fell to 100, and he was able to take a few spoonfuls of clear soup. However, over the next few days he continued to lose weight, and soon he was but a shadow of the handsome, muscular man with bright blue eyes who had come to America.
On November 22exactly 105 years to the day before John. F. Kennedy's assassinationPatrick, much emaciated and profusely sweating, emitted one last loud gurgling noise and died.
"He had survived in Boston for nine years, only five less than the life expectancy for an Irishman in America at mid-century," Peter Collier and David Horowitz write. "The first Kennedy to arrive in the New World, he was the last to die in anonymity."
But not the last to die before his time.
As Patrick lay dying, the next pivotal event in the Kennedy story was taking place across the harbor in Boston. There, in the North End, an Irish immigrant by the name of Thomas Fitzgerald was welcoming his first son into the family fold. Most of Thomas's offspring lived and died in obscurity. But oneJohn Francis Fitzgerald, his fourth and most brilliant sonbecame famous as a two-term mayor of Boston, the grandfather of President Kennedy, and a principal architect of the Kennedy Curse.
THE KENNEDY CURSE. Copyright © 2003 by Edward Klein. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.