No family has dominated American politics more in this century than the Kennedys, a clan which influenced the shaping of a nation to a degree rarely matched.
The first Irish Catholic family to reach the pinnacle of success in the U.S. and rule supreme on the blue-blooded Capitol Hill still generates a media frenzy throughout the country, 34 years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy
The patriarch of the Kennedy clan is Senator Edward Kennedy, whose political credentials are impeccable when it comes to Irish issues. The art of the deal comes to Senator Kennedy as naturally as breathing, and he has survived in the cut-throat world of Washington where many others failed to make their mark.
At first in the shadow of his two charismatic older brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, Senator Kennedy came to national attention when he delivered the eulogy at Robert Kennedy’s funeral, a mere five years after the president was assassinated in Dallas. Describing his brother’s life in New York’s St. Patrick Cathedral, Edward Kennedy quoted from Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw: “Some men see things as they are and ask why. I dream things that never were and ask why not.”
As the only surviving son of Rose and Joseph Kennedy, Edward stepped forward to don the mantle of scion of the most famous family of American politics. At age 30 he was elected in 1962 to the Senate seat vacated by his brother when he became president. He still holds the Massachusetts seat, and was reelected every time.
In the ensuing years Senator Kennedy’s record of legislation far surpassed that of both of his brothers, but his own bid to become president failed in 1980. Adrift in a sea of bad press for years, Senator Kennedy has overcome his detractors to carve out an extraordinary legislative career. Although scorned as too liberal in some quarters, Kennedy’s advocacy has always primarily been on behalf of the poor, the elderly, and the handicapped. Over the past 35 years almost all significant legislation which affected these groups has had the Kennedy stamp on it.
Senator Kennedy has never forgotten his family’s Irish roots, and for years has been a proponent of Irish issues in Washington. His involvement became apparent when he championed the cause of the International Fund for Ireland, an annual appropriation of U.S. funds to benefit disadvantaged areas in Northern Ireland.
In later years, he spearheaded the push for immigration reform, throwing his weight behind immigration reform, throwing his weight behind legislation which gave legal status to thousands of Irish immigrants. “The 1965 immigration act worked in a way we never predicted,” Kennedy explained. “It was a good act in the sense that it helped ethnic groups from nations that had suffered under racial bias but it put restrictions on nations like Ireland. During the 19702 there was an average of only about 1,000 visas a year from Ireland. In was strongly committed to changing that. The gates are swinging open again as they should be.”
On Capitol Hill, his legislative and foreign policy staff are astute, well-briefed, and serious when it comes to Irish affairs.
Kennedy was born February 22, 1932, and lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Victoria. His Washington office bears a plaque with the legend, the old Gaelic greeting meaning one hundred thousand welcomes. There is a large Irish flag next to the flag bearing the Kennedy coat of arms, three helmets on a white background.
“We’re Irish on all sides,” he told Irish America Magazine in one interview. “My mother’s mother was Josephine Hannon and my father’s mother was Mary Hickey. And we also have the names Murphy and Cox in the line too.
“Grandpa Fitzgerald was one of the very first Irish Catholic Democrats to be elected in new England-first as mayor of Boston and then as Congressman. He was a colorful and lively figure and very proud of his Irish ancestry. He took my mother back to Ireland when she was young and a great deal of Irishness came to him.” His daughter, Rose, was 104 when she died.
“My other grandfather, Patrick Kennedy, whose family were originally from county Wexford, was also in politics as a state senator. And my father always had an interest in public life, though he never sought elective office. “ Joseph Kennedy served as U.S. Ambassador to England during World War II. Where we wrote the eight-year-old Teddy about the horrors of war: “I hope when you grow up you will dedicate life to trying to work out plans to make people happy instead of making them miserable, as war does today.
“I was always interested in politics and elective office,” Kennedy confided. “Some form of public service was emphasized and stressed in the family. And it seemed to come naturally to us." This he credited to his Irish roots. “It’s partly intuitive. There’s an inherent warmth and enjoyment of people that the Irish have. And it is often said that the English wrote the English language but the Irish taught them how to use it. The Irish have this love for music and literature and these, combined with an emphasis in family and a devotion to freedom in their history, are pretty fundamental ingredients in political life.
“But there’s another part to this, too. The Irish came to politics out of necessity in earlier generations. They saw it as a way of moving upwards and achieving their hopes and aspirations. And the Irish have done that well. “
None as well as Senator Kennedy, who every year welcomes a parade of Irish politicians to his office. This does not only happen on St. Patrick’s Day, when the world celebrates its Irishness, but occurs regularly. Most of the leaders of Irish politics, both nationalist and unionist, in the last decades have made the senator’s office in Washington a vital port of call and there is always a welcome, regardless of what political stripe or hue the caller represents. Many called the Senator a friend, and looked to him for advice. Former Taoiseach Charles Haughey and the Senator shared a love of sailing and the sea.
While many politicians who espoused Irish causes ran for the hills when Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, whose party was finally absorbed in the peace process in 1992, came to the U.S., Senator Kennedy was there to greet him and give him access to the hallowed halls of Washington’s Power brokers.
He was in fact, instrumental in persuading President Bill Clinton, said to model himself after the Senator’s brother, John Kennedy, to grant a visa to the Sinn Fein leader in February of 1992. He has actively supported the administration’s role in Northern Ireland, made concrete with appointment of former Maine Senator George Mitchell as chair of the multi-party talks.
At key moments in the current Irish peace process Senator Kennedy has played a vital role in bringing American influence to bear on the both the Irish and British governments, and in convincing President Clinton to remain strongly involved. When President Clinton returned from his historic trip to Ireland in 1995 he personally thanked the Senator for all his advice and counsel.
But Kennedy is certainly not a Johnny-come-lately when it comes to Northern Ireland. “A number of years ago helped form a group called The Friends of Ireland”. I joined with Tip O’Neill, Patrick Moynihan, and Governor Hugh Carey of New York and we built up a bipartisan group in the House and the Senate that (sought) to be a positive force in the U.S. Congress for a united and free Ireland,” Kennedy told Irish America. “We stress peaceful resolution and economic development rather than support for the IRA. “
This philosophy is still evident in Kennedy’s approach six years later. With his hands-on involvement in the Northern Ireland peace process and his love of his ancestral home, Kennedy is a true friend to Ireland.
“He is a chieftain, which is what the old Irish word Taoiseach actually means” says Niall O’Dowd, publisher of Irish America, in explaining the choice of Kennedy as Irish American of the Year. ”He has led the cause of Ireland on Capitol Hill for over a generation now and has often received little recognition in return. I am convinced that when the history of this era is written, however, that he will loom largest of all. He deserves the gratitude and respect of every Irish American for what he has done.