‘At last we really are in Ireland’

In this beautifully written book, The Green And White House, journalist Lynne Kelleher takes a wry look at the special relationship one tiny nation shares with the world’s greatest superpower

Jacqueline Kennedy with Taoiseach Jack Lynch during the 1967 visit to Ireland

JFK’s rosary beads on display in the Wexford homestead

Lynne Kelleher's new book

A poignant gesture by Jacqueline Kennedy in the hours after her husband’s funeral — and her subsequent visit to his Irish homestead — showed how much a Wexford farm meant to JFK.

Sitting at the fireplace in his homestead in Dunganstown in Wexford in June, 1963, JFK asked his Irish cousin, Mary Ryan, if he could bring his wife and two children back to the farm the following year.

Iconic pictures of the glamorous US president mixing happily among a throng of his Wexford relatives and their neighbours at a tea party in the farmyard where his great grandfather had been spent his youth had been beamed around the world during his famous four-day state visit to Ireland.

Five months later, his second cousin Mary Ryan and her daughter Josephine were sitting at their Wexford home listening to the radio when it was interrupted with the shocking announcement that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.

A new book on the family ties of nearly two dozen US presidents to Ireland called The Green and White House, details how his grief-stricken widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, sent a request to Mrs Ryan to attend the state funeral in the days after his assassination.

JFK’s rosary beads on display in the Wexford homestead

But it was decided her daughter, Mary Ann, a young midwife working in the Rotunda Maternity Hospital in Dublin, would represent the family at the service at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C.

In the book, Patrick Grennan, the grandson of Mary Ryan, described how his aunt Mary Ann went out to Shannon Airport and got on a plane out to New York with European dignitaries attending the president’s funeral.

“A military plane brought her to Washington from New York. She sat beside Martin Luther King at the funeral. She travelled in the funeral cortège with JFK’s sister Patricia and her husband Peter Lawford.

He added: “When he sat at our fireplace, the president had asked if he could bring his wife and children back the next year. He must have spoken of his wishes to Jackie for her to have thought to invite Granny to the funeral.”

After the funeral, Mary Ann was taken aside by Jackie Kennedy, who handed her JFK’s rosary beads and his presidential identification tags. ‘The rosary beads were given to my aunt by Jackie the night JFK was buried and his commander-in-chief dog tag,’ said her nephew, Patrick.

“‘She took her aside and said, “Would you give this to your mum, Mrs Ryan?”’

It was an extraordinary gesture by a grief-stricken widow at a funeral that was attended by hundreds of foreign dignitaries.

But it would tie in with the disclosure by family friends that in his final vacation in his oceanside home in Hyannis Port, JFK spent many evenings repeatedly playing the black and white footage of his euphoric trip to Ireland for his siblings in the Kennedy Compound.

The rosary beads – which were thought to have been carried around by the president as part of a family practice instilled by his devout mother Rose - stayed in the attic of the Kennedy homestead for decades, but in more recent years they have been put on display in the museum in the Kennedy Homestead in Dunganstown outside New Ross.

The significance of the gesture was brought home to Patrick Grennan during a recent visit by Robert Kennedy’s son, Douglas, to the museum, as he stood in front of the glass case containing his uncle’s prayer beads.

“You’d rarely see anyone in Ireland with rosary beads now, but Douglas was standing there, and he pulled out his rosary beads from his pocket. He told me he would see photographs of his dad, Robert, with his hands in his pockets and Douglas knew he would be counting the rosary beads”, he says in The Green and White House.

Years later, the former CEO of the JFK Trust in New Ross and a family friend of the Kennedys, Sean Reidy, remembers bringing a Norwegian emigration expert out to visit the homestead in Dunganstown, where they met Mary Ann.

As the visitor had studied immigration, he remembers asking Mary Ann if she would mind showing him the items she was given at JFK’s funeral, which at that time were kept in a press upstairs.

“I can remember the man crying because he was so moved. Here was someone who took out a little box, a dog tag of an American president and the rosary beads he carried on him the day he was assassinated, one of the most iconic figures in world history, and here she was taking out a box in her living room and putting it on the table.

“The enormity of it really struck him, because he was someone who studied immigration.”

Tragically, JFK was unable to keep the promise he made in Limerick on the last day of his fabled trip to return to Ireland the following spring, but his family have kept coming in his name in the ensuing decades.

The most poignant visit to the Kennedy homestead was the arrival of Jackie Kennedy with her children, Caroline and John Jnr in June 1967, fulfilling the pledge her husband had made to bring back his family to see Mrs. Ryan, as at that earlier time Jackie was pregnant and therefore unable to make the trip.

Four years on and his widow was a style icon and one of the most recognisable people on the planet, who was seeking a haven of normality for her children away from the constant glare of cameras.

She sent a note to Mrs. Ryan from where she was staying in Woodstown House in the neighbouring county of Waterford.

It said: “Dear Mrs. Ryan, At last we really are in Ireland, and the children and I are looking forward so much to coming over to see you and meeting all of our cousins. I wondered if this coming Wednesday might be convenient for you?

She continued: “I would have asked to come much sooner – but there have been so many newspaper men and television cameras around, I didn’t want them all to follow us and spoil a happy family meeting – The children have been looking forward to Dunganstown for such a long time – They both have pictures of your house in their room at home – and I thought for little children, all the impressions of seeing the place their family came from, might be ruined if we were surrounded by photographers, so I hope you will forgive me for waiting until now to write to you.

The letter ended: “Please know how very much we’re all looking forward to seeing you. If that day is inconvenient for you – I am sure any other that you choose will be fine for us. Sincerely, Jacqueline Kennedy.

When the children and Jackie Kennedy arrived on the farm, the youngsters were smitten by two kittens with six-year-old John pleading with his mother to bring one home, but quarantine laws wouldn’t permit their passage back to the US.

The following day they were sent back down to the farm by their mother, arriving in bare feet with a security officer, and spent the day roaming the fields and playing with a sow and her young piglets.

Lynne Kelleher's new book

  • The Green And White House is out now

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