A resilient young Irish immigrant woman, who took a famine ship across the Atlantic and made her way in a less-than-tolerant America, paved the way for a dynasty that would become America’s ‘royal family’, writes Neal Thompson.

Hundreds of books and many millions of words have been devoted to stories of the Kennedys in America, chronicling every detail of the iconic family’s triumphs and tragedies. The Kennedys were America’s ‘royal family’, after all, wealthy and powerful and stylish, fabulous yet flawed.

Joe Kennedy, the family scion and patriarch of a beautiful brood of nine ambitious sons and daughters, often gets credit for building the Kennedy dynasty.
But how many devoted Kennedy fans know about Joe’s father? Or his grandparents? How did the Kennedys even get their start in America?

Perpetually overlooked behind tales of the twentieth-century Kennedys are the lesser-known stories of the poor immigrant Kennedys who came to America in the mid-1800s, fleeing the collapse of their famine-ravaged homeland. Before all the ink would be spent on the remarkable ascents of JFK, RFK and others, and long before the myth of ‘Camelot’, the empire began with a poor Irish refugee couple who escaped famine to start a new life in a city hostile to their kind.

Their names were Bridget Murphy and Patrick Kennedy, both children of tenant farmers, both from County Wexford and both the first in their families to leave home. Bridget and Patrick left Ireland in late 1847 — making ‘a leap into the unknown’, as their great-grandson JFK would later put it, joining a ship full of political refugees and other risk-takers ‘who dared to explore new frontiers’.

Their escape was aboard one of the well-known and much-reviled ‘coffin ships’ — ships overloaded with poor and desperate refugees, many thousands of whom died during the Atlantic crossing, their bodies wrapped in sailcloth and tossed overboard.

They reached Boston, where they met and married in 1849. But while they were relieved to have survived the Famine and the crossing, they soon discovered that life in America had its own challenges, not least of which was a deep-seated discrimination against Irish and Catholics.

The country beckoned to women like Bridget, who emigrated in greater numbers than Irish men, with the promise of a better life than that of a tenant farmer’s wife, tending to the hearth, the sheep, her children and her man; a peasant lifestyle that had remained virtually unchanged for centuries.

But in America? Where activist women were rallying for the right to vote, agitating for workers’ rights, where women could go to college, become teachers, where an immigrant woman could graduate tops in her medical school class to become the first female doctor in America?

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own