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.
He went to speak of his famous grandfather,’ Honey Fitz’ John Fitzgerald, his mother’s father, and pointed out how he himself resembled him physically.
“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.
One of the original Four Horsemen, Kennedy’s support for constitutional nationalism in Ireland has long been evident through his sincere friendship with the leader of the SDLP party, John Hume.
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. “