Book Excerpt: The Kennedys

Author Thomas Maier uncovers intimate new details about America's most prominent political dynasty, from family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy to the latest generation in The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings. The following is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of the book, which will be released Oct. 7.

The Boys of Wexford

Ireland appeared strange and new, yet hauntingly familiar. From inside the presidential helicopter, hundreds of feet above the ground, John Fitzgerald Kennedy gazed out at the beautiful land below and reflected upon his journey. Something about this ancestral homeland stirred him deeply. "Ireland is an unusual place," he'd say before departing, "what happened five hundred or a thousand years is as yesterday."

The president's entourage took off that morning from Dublin and headed south along the rocky coastline of the Irish Sea on their way to Wexford County and the small hamlet known as New Ross. From this place, Kennedy's great-grandfather had departed in 1848 to escape a land tortured by famine and oppression to seek a new life as an immigrant in Boston. As if coming full circle, as if completing some generational journey begun by his forefathers more than a century ago, Kennedy returned to Ireland for a state visit in June 1963, the only Roman Catholic ever elected to the White House and the first American president to come to the Emerald Isle while in office. His aides and the press had questioned the usefulness of stopping in Ireland as part of a much larger European trip in which Kennedy inveighed against the Berlin Wall and the evils of communism. But Kennedy insisted on adding his family's homeland to his itinerary. During the four days in Ireland, there would be plenty of political tasks, conversations about trade and diplomacy, though everyone recognized, including Kennedy himself, that the real reason for this Irish excursion was purely personal.

Out of the mist of this soggy day, Kennedy could see the lush farmlands of Eire-hundreds of acres stretched over long, sloping hills, carved majestically into the horizon by hedgerows, granite walls and crooked streams. Sliding by, almost in a blur, were scenes that seemed torn from picture postcards, the kind that Irish-Americans send to loved ones to remind them of what their families left behind: ruins of medieval churches and headstones lost in a meadow; cottages with thatched roofs; farmers feeding pigs or tending to sheep waiting to be sheared; old lighthouses, once kept by monks, perched along jagged beaches and grassy peninsulas whipped by waves. All were quiet reminders of an ancient land, culture and religion that Kennedy possessed in his bones but often kept from public view. On this trip, however, the young and often reserved president would hide neither his roots nor his enthusiasm.

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