Kennedy’s Ireland: From Feast to Famine to Fame

We traveled through time today.  We started in the 1849 in New Ross, Ireland at the Dunbrody famine ship. 80% of the Irish at this time were Irish Catholics.  Because Ireland was essentially a British colony and Britain was Protestant at the time, Irish Catholics were not allowed to own land.  Instead they had to work for Irish landlords who were renting land from absentee landowners back in England.  The landowners would divide the land into several smaller parcels, each worked by a tenant farmer.  The farmer was expected to give most of his crops to the landlord for his “rent” of the land.  The small corner of the plot that was left was usually used for potatoes because they would grow plentifully, even in bad soil, and that was the only crop that produced enough food to feed a family.  Since Irish people, were eating only potatoes, they needed seven to fourteen pounds of potatoes per person per day!  

When a blight came in the form of a mold, it affected the potato crop, which didn’t hurt the landlords or landowners because they had the tenant farmers growing grains and raising sheep to export to England. It affected only the potatoes — the one crop the poor farmers were counting on for their families.  Not only that, but it affected ALL parts of the plant, including the tubers that would be used to plant the future crops.  As a result, the majority of the farmers were being forced to export the crops that did grow or be kicked off their land. The part they were able to keep was inedible and not able to be used to seed the next crop either.  Out of 8 million people living in Ireland, over a million of these died of starvation.  Another two million were sent off on ships like the one we saw today, often with a paid passage from the landlords or relatives in the states

The Dunbrody was a cargo ship.  It was built in Canada and painted to make it look like it had cannons aboard to dissuade pirate from attacking.  It would travel to Canada for lumber, to the United States for grain, and to South America for guano to be used as fertilizer.  Its owners paid their crew well, but only AFTER returning to Ireland.  This would prevent crew members from jumping ship and staying in the “Promised Land.”  Since so many wanted to travel to America, why wouldn’t its owners make some profit on this mass emigration?  They equipped the lower cargo deck with forty bunks, each six feet by six feet.  Sounds pretty roomy, right?  Unfortunately, four people were expected to bunk in each one.  It was usually a family, but if you were traveling single, you were expected to share anyway, often with complete strangers.  Irish emigrants came in droves, paying the equivalence of often four months’ salary, in hopes of a better life in America.  They did this, even knowing that these ships were called coffin ships, due to their 40% death rate after the 6-8 week journey.  When Irish people lost loved ones to death, they would hold an Irish Wake.  This was a celebration of the life of the deceased  and an opportunity for people to say goodbye. The loved ones these emigrants were going to leave behind often gave them an American Wake, since they believed they were saying their last goodbyes.

There were an average of 200 passengers on famine ships at a time.  Only one person from each bunk were allowed come up to the deck, and then only for 30 minutes per day to cook the meager amounts of bread they were allowed each day.  Six slop buckets were used below for… well… you can probably imagine, and they were emptied by crew members who would spit into the wind to make sure the contents would actually end up overboard when dumped.  Passengers would pray for a top bunk on these ships.  With the rather at which cholera and dysentery would take people, bottom bunks were often recipients of a variety of bodily fluids that would seep between the boards, increasing the rate of infection.  Once the dead were thrown overboard and the survivors were deposited on the shores of North America, the ship’s crew would rip out all the bunks and load the hold with their cargo for the return journey.  Back in Ireland, the bunks would be rebuilt, and the cycle would begin again.

One of these emigrants was Patrick Kenedy, the younger son of an Irish potato farmer.  When they arrived in Boston, he probably didn’t know how to read or write, so his name was written down phonetically at their arrival port as Kennedy. His wife Bridget insisted that all of her children were well educated.  We’ll follow one very important branch of his line:  His son, also Patrick, grew up and had a son named Joseph. Joseph grew up and had nine children.  All of Joseph Kennedy’s children were active contributors to their world.  One of their daughters, Kathleen, was very active in the Red Cross during and after World War II.   Another daughter, Patricia, founded the National Committee on Literary Arts.  Jean was the Ambassador to Ireland. Eunice founded Special Olympics, inspired by her sister Rosemary, who was born with mental disabilities. Their son Joseph was killed in action during World War II and earned the Navy Cross for valor in battle.  Ted was a U.S. senator for almost 47 years. Robert was a senator, U.S. Attorney, and the presidential campaign manager for his brother.  That brother, John F. Kennedy, won the campaign and went on to become the 35th president of the United States.  Back in Ireland, Patrick Kenedy’s brother had stayed behind, and the Ireland Kenedys are still in their original homestead in a tiny village near New Ross.  They are very proud that one of their own was able to rise to such an influential position in the world. 

Being the recipients of so many good things the Kennedy family of the United States have done, we decided to visit the old homestead.  We made our way down a road so narrow Bill didn’t have to worry much about being on the left because there was barely room for more than one car at a time anyway.  It was hair raising going around corners, however.  We finally arrived at a little visitor center, where we were shown a video, a family tree, and several other displays regarding the American Kennedy’s. Since the Irish Kenedys still live in the same little house, we could not cross the yard to visit there; however, JFK’s cousin went through the trouble of recreating their 1960s living room out in the stable — the same living room JFK himself came to visit when he was president.  Running in the living room, on a 1960s looking television, was footage of JFK’s visit to the homestead. We were told that Secret Service agents were crawling all over that little town for a month before JFK’s arrival and that the whole neighborhood was invited to a tea party in his honor.  

Our center host suggested that, since we were Americans, we might like to sit on the same couch he sat on when he visited with his cousin and watch some “American TV.” We asked why it was called American TV, and they said because no one in Ireland had color television yet, but this footage must have been American because it was in color.  We did sit there, and we discovered two things:  First, the “couch” wasn’t really a couch but the bench seat of a car. Our guide told us that car benches were much easier to get in this rural community, so that’s what they used for seats in their living rooms as  well.  Secondly, it was completely worn out on the end where JFK was shown to be sitting in the footage.  This wasn’t surprising, since we were told that over 200,000 people have visited this old Homestead.  I guess no one was interested in sitting where JFK’s cousin had sat on the other end!  We had a lovely visit in this tiny Irish village, and then it was time to travel back even further, to a medieval castle called Kilkenny.

Kilkenny was built in the 1200s by the Anglo Norman Conqueror Strongbow as a wedding present for his daughter Isabella and her husband, William Marshal. It was passed down from generation to generation, being modernized, added to, and renovated by each new owner.  It was fun touring this lavishly decorated castle and learning more about what it must have been like to live at that time.  We had been noticing, for example, that beds are really short.  That is because people would sleep sitting up.  They believed that only dead people should lie down.  They also believed that lying down in bed caused lung problems (really it was the unvented fireplaces they were using for heat).  Finally, sitting up in a high bed made it less likely that rodents would be crawling on their faces and in their hair.  Gulp. 

Our favorite room was the Long Gallery. The long gallery was designed for one purpose: to display art. At one time, it had over 200 original paintings. The largest ones are still there, but they are tastefully displayed on the spacious walls. For us, the most interesting work of art was actually the ceiling overhead. The beams of beautiful carved oak made it look a lot like a Viking ship may have looked, and each beam was hand painted with colorful designs.

After walking around this beautiful castle and the surrounding village, we enjoyed some shepherd’s pie, lamb shank, and local Irish beer at Bollard’s Pub.  Then we headed back to our own little castle for a good night’s sleep so we would be ready for our next Irish adventure.

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