Ten years after: A look back at the life and death of JFK Jr.



He would be 49 now, close to Barack Obama in age and sharing this moment with him. Maybe he'd be in elective politics, perhaps as Hillary's replacement in the Senate.

Or he might even have been thinking to run for the job his father once held. We will never know.

Ten years after his death on July 16, 1999, John Kennedy Jr. remains forever the uncrowned king, a lost leader who might have found this time his own to command. He was a visionary. His magazine George caught perfectly the moment when celebrity and politics became fused and botox became more important than biotech.

He had an extraordinary common touch. This is a true story: A few years back when John F. Kennedy Jr. was an Assistant District Attorney in New York he received a letter from an Irish farmer which stated in part, "I am coming to the United States for a visit. I will die a happy man if I could shake the hand of the son of President Kennedy." Kennedy received thousands of letters every year seeking appointments, but for some reason this one grabbed his attention and he agreed to meet.

"On the day in question an old guy showed up in his best polyester suit with a very broad tie stretching down below his belt buckle" remembers a former Kennedy colleague. "He walked in the door, pulled out a picture of the dead president from his back pocket and handed it to John to sign. When John did so, tears welled up in the old man's eyes.

"He then pulled an Irish linen tablecloth out of his bag and handed it to John who accepted it gracefully. The man then took out his Instamatic camera and snapped numerous shots. He went back happy to Ireland with pictures of himself and the son of John Kennedy."

Such was the appeal of young Kennedy to many Irish.

It was no surprise that the Irish community in New York did not a forget him in his tragic hour . A Memorial Mass for John Kennedy Jr., his wife Carolyn and sister-in-law Lauren Besette was celebrated. at Old St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mott Street in Manhattan. There in the old cathedral where generations of Irish not long off the famine ships worshipped, the memory of the most famous Irish emigrant family was rekindled and their latest tragic loss commemorated.

According to the celebrant, Fr. Colm Campbell, a Belfast native, the Mass was a small token of the esteem the community held for the man who died so tragically.

Among the poems read on the evening was the lament to Eoghan Rua O'Neill: "Why did you leave us Eoghan, Why did you die," which was widely quoted when President John F. Kennedy died.

Though he was never front-page material on Irish issues, John Kennedy Jr. nonetheless was becoming more interested in his roots. He is, of course, descended from Patrick Kennedy, a peasant farmer in Wexford who was destined to become Ireland's most famous emigrant.. Patrick left Ireland in 1848 to escape the Famine and traveled to Boston. In Boston, he became a cooper and was active in politics and the fight against anti-Catholicism. In September of 1849 he married Bridget Murphy, a neighbor from home. His son Patrick became a successful businessman, and it was his son, Joseph Kennedy, who created the Kennedy fortune.

John Kennedy Jr. visited his ancestral home in Dunganstown in 1967. "He ran in from the farm saying there was electricity in the grass, and all because he got stung by the nettles," his Irish cousin Patrick Grennan told The Irish Times.  "Jackie Kennedy wanted him and his sister Caroline to see the land where their family came from. She visited the homestead and then sent the children back the next day barefoot to experience authentic farm life."


Kennedy may have been about to relive those links again. According to family sources, John and his sister Caroline had kept closely up to date with the reconstruction of the Famine ship Dunbrody. Many of them believed that John Jr. himself would have been part of the voyage recreating that of his great-great grandfather over a century and a half ago.

After his death, the project fizzled and was only recently revived.

His most notable contribution on Irish issues was a lengthy interview he carried out with Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams during a visit to Ireland in June of 1997 for his George magazine. As part of that visit, Kennedy attended the funeral of Patrick Kelly, an IRA prisoner who had died in a British jail when his cancer was diagnosed too late. Kelly was buried in the Irish Republic, and the following day John Jr. took the train to Belfast and was met at the central station there by Richard and Chrissie McAuley, two Sinn Fein representatives. For the next seven hours, they showed the son of the former President around the city in order to prepare him for his interview.