THE UNINTENTIONAL CRIME
IN THE FAINT PEWTER LIGHT of an Irish dawn, a young man riding bareback on an old gray draft horse emerged from a fogbank on the outskirts of New Ross, a river port south of Dublin. A cold, hard rain pelted the sides of his horse, and the fog roiled up above the treetops, concealing the road ahead. A stranger might have hesitated to proceed any farther for fear of getting lost, but the young man knew the countryside like the back of his hand. He was a local lad, and the sum total of his life's experience, along with the memory and bones of his ancestors, was encompassed within a fifteen-mile radius of the town.
He made his way through the maze of fogbound alleys, and when he came to the stone wharf, he dismounted and tethered his horse to a post. His large hands were cut and callused, a sign that he worked at a trade requiring sharp instruments. Beneath an untidy shock of reddish brown hair, his pale blue eyes looked upon the world with an odd mixture of fear and defiance.
Because he was Roman Catholic, no baptism certificate existed to fix the precise date of his birth (at the time, only Protestants were considered deserving of that privilege), but according to family tradition,he was born in Dunganstown, County Wexford, in 1823, which made him twenty-six years old. Though we possess only the barest scraps of information about this young man, it is important for the purposes of our inquiry into the Kennedy Curse that we try to piece together his story from the accounts of family members, written and oral histories, and Irish folklorists.
His name was Patrick Kennedy, and on this foggy February morning, he was about to leave his family and the tangled web of personal relationships in Ireland that had sustained him and given his life meaning, and take his chances in America. Once in Boston, Patrick would marry, have children, then die of consumption--all within the space of nine years. In that brief period of time, he became the founding father of the greatest political dynasty in American history. Through his bloodline, he gave America its first Catholic President, three U.S. senators, a U.S. attorney general, two members of the House of Representatives, two additional presidential contenders, and the dream of a golden age called Camelot.
In years to come, people would assume that Old Joe Kennedy--"the ruthless tycoon, with his film star mistress Gloria Swanson, his fortune carved from bootlegged booze, and his purchased political respectability" --was responsible for the Kennedy Curse. However, as we shall see, the seeds of the family's destruction were planted long ago in the unforgiving soil of famine-stricken Ireland.
That fateful morning Patrick Kennedy made a very odd sight indeed.
He was dressed in a cocked hat with the brim folded up against the crown and a swallow-tailed coat with long, tapering tails at the back. The coat was too narrow for his broad shoulders and the sleeves too short for his arms. He probably had no idea that his outfit, the height of fashion during the time of Napoleon, had gone out of style more than thirty years before. These shabby discards, which he had bought from an itinerant peddler for a few pennies, were all he could afford for the journey he intended to take far beyond the tidewater of New Ross.
In preparation for his trip, he had been visiting friends and family to bid them farewell. His first stop had been at the chapel, as the local Catholic church was called, where he received a blessing from the parish priest, Father Michael Mitten, who no doubt quoted from 2 Corinthians: "Weep sore for him that goeth away: for he shall return no more, nor see his native country."
He paid a parting call on the Glascotts, the Protestant family that held Whitechurch Parish and much of the surrounding land and were landlords of the Kennedys and other Catholic tenants. The Glascotts were themselves tenants of an even larger estate owned by the Tottenhams. But Patrick did not have to remove his cocked hat and bow his head to the Tottenhams, for they lived in England and did not deign to dirty their boots with the soil of Ireland.
Patrick had come to New Ross this day to say good-bye to his fellow workers at the Cherry Brothers Brewery, where he had been apprenticed for the past several years as a cooper, learning to carve casks and barrels. While he waited in the fog for the brewery to open, he could hear the creaking timber of sailing ships on the River Barrow and a distant watch bell striking the half hour.
At some point he became aware of a rustling sound on the cobblestones near where he stood. At first, he mistook the noise for a flock of seagulls. Then he realized that the entire street was stirring with homeless people, awakening from a night's sleep.
He watched them stand and stretch. "The barely human shapes," reported one observer, "were so emaciated, bones seemed to be held together by nothing more than skin." A few shrunken things that resembled children huddled near the entrance of the New Ross workhouse, their mouths stained green from eating grass.
The year was 1849, and it was the fourth consecutive winter of a mysterious blight that had destroyed the potato crop of Ireland. Without potatoes, the staple of their diet, people could not survive, and Ireland was in the grip of a great hunger.
An estimated million people had died of starvation and disease,although no one knew the precise number. Perhaps another 2 million had emigrated to England, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Columns of weary refugees, evicted from their homes by landlords, wandered the roads without aim or purpose. Looking back from the perspective of our era, a writer noted that the Irish Famine represented "the greatest concentration of civilian suffering and death in Western Europe between the Thirty Years' War and World War II."
Patrick Kennedy had witnessed sights of such unimaginable horror that he and his descendants would be haunted for generations by the memory. He had seen desperate people fighting with rats over the half-eaten flesh of decomposing corpses. He had watched as emaciated bodies were dumped into mass graves from reusable coffins with trapdoors. He had been present when a starving mob besieged the New Ross workhouse while nearby a convoy of English soldiers guarded the loading of surplus butter, eggs, wheat, barley, pork, and beef earmarked for shipment to the dining tables of England.
With Ireland transformed into a vast charnel house, Patrick had decided to join the exodus to America. Unlike those who chose to uproot themselves from other European countries for the promise of the New World, he did not view himself as a voluntary emigrant. In Irish mythology, being cast adrift on the ocean was punishment for a crime committed unintentionally. Patrick believed that he was being punished by the deceitful and treacherous English for the unintentional crime of being Irish.
Ireland's English overlords did not see it that way, of course. Conveniently enough, they believed that the Famine was God's punishment for Irish sins. "Ireland," declared a Protestant landlord, "is under the curse of God and will be till she is delivered from the curse of Popery."
In London all funds for Irish famine relief were controlled by one man, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Charles Edward Trevelyan. He was a typical Victorian Englishman: self-righteous, devoutly religious, "and not noted for his admiration of the Irish." Trevelyan excused his failure to take bold action in Ireland on the grounds that"government should not meddle" with the natural laws of supply and demand, "for the market [is] nothing less than a reflection of God's will."
Some Catholics agreed that the Famine was a well-deserved scourge--"a calamity with which God wishes to purify ... the Irish people," as the archbishop of Armagh put it. But most concurred with a band of young Catholic professionals, journalists, and poets who called themselves Young Ireland and scoffed at the idea that the Famine was a visitation of Providence.
"The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine," thundered the celebrated Irish firebrand John Mitchel.
In his newspaper, the United Irishman, and in his bestselling books, Jail Journal and The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps), Mitchel framed the context of the Famine for Patrick Kennedy and countless other Irishmen, both at home and abroad. Mitchel portrayed Ireland as a virtuous nation locked in mortal combat with an evil empire hellbent on genocide. Every Irish generation since the Great Rebellion of 1798 had risen up against the English, wrote Mitchel, and it was the responsibility of succeeding generations to pay a debt to the patriot dead until Ireland was rid of its oppressors.
This unquenchable desire for revenge would fuel the Kennedys' ambition for the next century and a half.
The Famine was a direct assault on Irish masculinity, for it undermined the Irishman's confidence in his manly responsibility to feed and protect his family. Along with other Irishmen, Patrick Kennedy embraced Mitchel's romantic myth, for it helped relieve him of an overpowering sense of guilt.
Guilt found fertile soil in Patrick's Irish soul. For as long as he could remember, he had been afflicted by an overabundance of it, as though he personally bore the blame for Christ's Passion and Crucifixion. Irish boys like Patrick were taught from childhood that they owed God an eineaclann, or blood fine, because they were born inOriginal Sin. When Patrick used the Lord's name as an ...