JFK was here

In October 1848 a young farmer from Dunganstown in County Wexford left Ireland for Liverpool and then sailed on to the New World, starting a chain of events that gave rise to the 35th president of the United States. The farmer’s name was Patrick Kennedy and his great grandson, well, you know the rest. He married his best friend’s cousin, Bridget and started a family but Patrick didn’t last too long in his adopted city of Boston. He died of cholera in 1858; in an eerie coincidence he died on November 22; his presidential great grandson would be assassinated on the same date 105 years later. Bridget kept the family going by working as a maid; then saved up enough to purchase a stationary and notions shop. When she expanded the business to sell groceries and liquor, she paved the way for the success of future generations of Kennedys.

In 1963, shortly after announcing he was a doughnut “ich bin ein Berliner” to the citizens of Berlin, John F. Kennedy flew to Ireland and made a short visit to his great grandfather’s old stomping grounds. This wasn’t just a presidential visit; this was the Republic of Ireland’s first major media event. The Irish national television station RTE had only been up and running for about a year and a half and had to borrow equipment from the BBC so they could cover the event.  People were beside themselves with excitement; crowds lined the streets just to catch a glimpse of the guy with the tan and impossibly white teeth. Portraits of JFK shared pride of place on Irish walls and mantelpieces next to the Pope and the Sacred Heart.  He was a shining example of a successful emigrant story; proof that heading off into the great blue yonder sometimes turns out to be the best thing you can do. It is little wonder that the memory of that visit is still writ large upon the county of Wexford. The Emigrant Trail takes visitors on a 15 mile loop of three key heritage sites, starting with the market town of New Ross. It was from this port that Patrick Kennedy left and today the quay is home to the Dunbrody Famine ship; a perfect replica of an 1840s emigrant vessel.

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By the entrance to the ship, there is a great bronze globe with an eternal flame burning within. This is the Emigrant Flame; installed in 2013 to mark the 50th anniversary of JFK’s visit. The flame was lit, Olympic torch style, from the eternal flame on JFK’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery; then transported via Boston and Liverpool to New Ross, tracing Patrick Kennedy’s journey in reverse.

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Further down the quay, there is a life sized statue of JFK himself, hand outstretched to anyone willing to shake a president’s hand.

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Four miles out of New Ross lies the Kennedy homestead. Even though it’s quite remote, down winding country lanes, you won’t get lost because there are great big signs bearing JFK’s face to ensure you stay on track.

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The homestead features an interpretive exhibit and some rare photographs and the grounds and buildings are in great shape…

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…although I doubt the authenticity of topiary in an 1840s Irish farmyard.

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Follow the trail a little further and you will find my favourite of the sites; the JFK Memorial Park and Arboretum. It was opened in 1968 in memory of JFK and is a stunning collection of trees and shrubs covering 623 acres.

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Five months after his visit to Ireland, JFK took that fateful car ride through the streets of Dallas; but during the four short days that he visited Ireland, he ignited the passion of a nation which burns brightly to this day.

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