Kennedy Summer School 2019 celebrated one of Irish America's greatest families while looking forward to US politics in 2020.
New Ross, Co. Wexford - By the waterside in New Ross Wexford is the replica of the Famine ship Dunbrody, restored to the actual size and sail dimensions of what it was during its lifetime, a ship bringing hundreds of thousands of desperate Irish to America. The original ship was built in Quebec in 1845.
The hold where the anxious migrants mostly lived for the three-month trail-of-tears conditions must have been sickening, as men, women, and children lay side by side, often in pitch blackness.
Diseases were rampant; dead bodies often laid untouched for days. Food was the most basic possible, usually a watery soup prepared on deck.
Passengers were often locked in for days as the crews battened down the hatches while Atlantic storms pounded the barely seaworthy vessels.
I’m sure many would have wished for a watery grave during those terrible times, though at least, unlike their African brethren, they were not chained.
New Ross, of course, was the port of embarkation for the most famous immigrant family of all. Patrick Kennedy, a cooper or barrel maker, stepped on board a ship like the Dunbrody in the year of 1849 with nothing but a hold-all and the clothes he stood in. He had walked from the tiny Kennedy farm at Dunganston, about six miles from New Ross.
How could he have ever imagined that a mere 155 years later his great-grandson would come back to that same little plot of land and to nearby New Ross as the most powerful person on earth?
Not only that, but Patrick would found one of the great American dynasties, the Kennedy family, whose triumphs and tragedies have become part of the American fabric.
New Ross has rightly surrounded the Kennedy history and the Dunbrody story with many relevant displays.
I am very proud that our Irish America Magazine Hall of Fame, newly refurbished and updated, is a major part of the emigration success story as told in New Ross of the Irish who came to America under such daunting circumstances and their successors who achieved so much.
“Squeeze in here beside me Jeffrey, don’t be shy,” says @columeastwood.
I think he meant for the photo. But possibly politically too. #JFKSS #KennedySummerSchool pic.twitter.com/vDQfJMpnPN— Declan Harvey (@NewsDeclan) September 7, 2019
Each year in March in New York we enshrine our Hall of Fame honorees (Senator John McCain, Vice President Joe Biden, President Clinton, Maureen O’Hara among others have been personally inducted). Then their plaque and family history is enshrined in New Ross.
In addition to the historical venues, the town holds an annual JFK Summer School which attracts top politicians from both sides of the Atlantic and a series of top personalities. This year’s keynote speaker was New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.
Summer schools have become very popular institutions in Ireland with no particular American equivalent, a three or four-day series of meetings, lectures, performances, music, craic, and insights. Among the topics at this year’s JFK event was contemporary Irish/American relationships in the year of Trump.
Very lively & animated discussion currently taking place @JFK_SS on America’s political & media landscape & on our bilateral relations with engaging & witty historical insights from @IrelandEmbUSA’s former Deputy Head of Mission Michael Lonergan #JFKSS pic.twitter.com/b0HhjCR73p— Siobhán Miley (@SiobhnMiley) September 7, 2019
I was fortunate enough to be part of a panel on the 2020 election, ably hosted by Irish American law lecturer Larry Donnelly who is based in Ireland. What was immediately obvious was how well informed the Irish audience was.
That was not surprising, perhaps, given the history and heritage of the town we were in.
For details of future events, you can find the JFK Summer School in New Ross here.