When we think of the Kennedys - Irish America's first family - we think of their wealth, power, and style.
But it's a million miles from the humble origins of Patrick and Bridget Kennedy, the hard-working mid-19th century Irish immigrant couple who escaped famine, poverty, and oppression in Ireland to create a life together in a new American city that loathed Irish refugees.
Wondering why the famous family's raw early years in the United States had been sidelined for so long, Irish American author Neal Thompson has delved into the lives and backgrounds of emigrant pair Patrick and Bridget Kennedy in his twenty years in the making new book, "The First Kennedys, The Humble Roots Of An American Dynasty."
In the process, he has come to admire the grit and street smarts displayed by young Bridget Kennedy in particular, the mother of them all.
Partly Thompson's admiration is circumstantial because Patrick died young of consumption, or what we now call tuberculosis, at the age of 35, leaving Bridget with little money and four hungry children to raise.
The danger of being a single mother in that century in America was as profound as in the century that followed in Ireland, but Bridget set to work to change all their fortunes and she succeeded beyond anyone's dreams.
At every step, she had a fight on her hands. Even burying her young husband was an ordeal because the then protestant-run city of Boston showed undisguised contempt for the tens of thousands of famine-era Irish.
There were even laws in place to prevent most Catholic burials within the city limits, which meant Bridget and her children had to take two boats to reach the town of Cambridge, where her tragic young husband could finally be laid to rest.
We think of Boston now as a seat of Irish Catholic power and we think of the Kennedys as the ultimate aristocratic insiders, but neither of these things was true when the first American Kennedys made their home there and perhaps for that reason it's why so few historians have ever lifted the rock off those harsh early days in the families history.
“I think people prefer the version of the story where the heroic and beautiful Kennedys are a great hope for democracy and civil rights,” Thompson tells IrishCentral. “But I find that the more interesting piece of the Kennedy story is that like almost every immigrant wave coming to America, they really started with nothing.”
Starting at the bottom and had to claw their way up, Thompson continues. “We never really think of the Kennedys as hard striving, part of the larger poor and despised Irish immigrant population. But because I myself come from an immigrant Irish couple, second generation, I know that things must have been very tough for them starting out.”
Thompson's own grandfather came from Ireland in the 1920s, he says. “He was a truck driver and my grandmother was a maid and then a seamstress, so they were not too dissimilar from the earlier waves of Irish immigrants, starting at the very bottom. And I think we are losing and forgetting that story, especially I think in recent years as the rhetoric around 'build the wall' returned. The fear of the immigrant is still so strong and it's always been that way here.”
The hostility toward the arriving Irish in Boston was seen in so many ways, but even in death, their bigotry didn't let up. “You know, the fact that the entire city was closed off to Irish burials by law was remarkable. There was no Catholic cemetery on the island of East Boston where the Kennedys lived. So they literally had to leave their own city to find a place to bury Bridget's dead husband. Well, first her young son and then her husband. There was no respite in life or even in death.”
That's the kind of hard lesson that makes you clear-eyed about the country you are living in and the people who surround you. It's also an unforgettable way to learn the value of civil rights and community cooperation. None of this was lost on Bridget, nor would it ever be lost on her descendants.
“What fascinated me is that these days you think of Boston as such an Irish city, because that's what it became. The stronghold of the Kennedys and the Irish Democrats. But at the time the first wave of Kennedys came to America, Boston hated the Irish and hated Catholics.
“They did everything in their power to stop them from achieving power or agency. They suppressed their voting rights. They made it mandatory to study Protestant history and say Protestant prayers. These things the Irish had to fight against just to have the laws recognize their religion and their rights.”
Bridget Kennedy emerges as such a formidable woman in Thompson's telling. She loses her husband early, a development that would have unmoored many people, but not her. She somehow reinvents herself as an entrepreneur and businesswoman and starts to thrive, laying the groundwork for the rise of her son to enterprise and public service, clearing the way for the emerging Kennedy dynasty.
“I'm glad you latched onto that because I think Bridget is such a heroic character and a forgotten one. To have come to America on her own in the first place, a young single woman traveling across the ocean at a time when it was so dangerous to do so. Then finding herself alone again after her husband dies, and she was poor. She didn't have many resources. There was no one coming to rescue her when she was left alone with her four kids.
“I just think it says a lot about her, her grit and her drive and her determination, that she found a way to move up a couple notches, starting out as a maid and then becoming a hairdresser. And then remarkably opening her own business at a time when it was difficult for the Irish and especially difficult for single women. I just think she is the hero of that family.”
Maybe it says something about the Kennedys that she wasn't held up as the hero of that family, Thompson says. “JFK famously gave a speech after a visit to his Irish family homestead in New Ross where he talked about his great-grandfather having left Ireland. So he gives credit briefly to his great-grandfather, but he never mentions Bridget. And I couldn't find any evidence of Bobby Kennedy or Ted Kennedy ever mentioning Bridget either, even though I think she's the reason that the Kennedy clan survived and ultimately survived in America.”
When I ask him if he thinks such great emigrant journeys are still possible, the kind of classic immigrant tales of the 19th century where people leave the old country rarely to return, he pauses. Does he feel like that's still a feature of American life and politics now?
“That's a great question. I'm hopeful that it is, but I worry too that the doors are being closed intentionally. I wish there was more of that messaging from Biden and others. We now have our second Irish Catholic president. But I don't see him in his actions and his words acting like he's an Irish Catholic president."
"I think he has downplayed that side of his background. I wish he would amplify the message of his own heritage, which is that of an oppressed class of immigrant people who work their way up and look what you can achieve. I think there's a little bit of a lost opportunity there to show us a little bit more clearly who we are and what we're capable of and how we can come from nothing and work our way up.”
"The First Kennedys, The Humble Roots Of An American Dynasty" by Neal Thompson is available for preorder from Mariner Books, $28.00.
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