Book Excerpt: The Kennedys

Through his window, Kennedy tried to recognize certain landmarks, sites he remembered from his trips to Ireland before he became president. While in the helicopter, the president ordered the pilot to fly by Lismore Castle in Waterford County, the stone castle where his sister, Kathleen, once lived as the widow of the Duke of Devonshire and where he had stayed as a young congressman during his first visit to Ireland in 1947. The whirling bird hovered momentarily over this ancient castle as the president stared at its massive square towers and battlements, lost in his own thoughts. For some Irish, Lismore Castle, built on a giant rock, symbolized the oppressive presence of the British, a site with its own history of bloodshed in the struggle for liberty and political control of the isle. For Kennedy, though, the beautiful castle surrounded by gardens of magnolias and yews undoubtedly brought back memories of his dead sister and a different time in the Kennedy family's lives together. In such a short time, Ireland had changed and so had Jack Kennedy himself. The president's craft lingered for what seemed the longest time and eventually swooped away; it glided over the tops of trees to the River Barrow.

Waiting at New Ross, where the mouth of the river opens, were a throng of schoolchildren, all dressed in white sweaters and assembled on the thick green turf of an athletic field, newly named Sean O'Kennedy Football Field in honor of the president. From fifteen hundred feet above, Kennedy's entourage of aides and family members could see the children in a formation that spelled out Failte, the Gaelic word for "Welcome." The town soon made good on its promise. When the helicopter landed, Kennedy stepped out gingerly-immediately recognizable in his deep blue business suit, his thick wave of auburn hair and the smiling squint of his eyes-and was swarmed by well-wishers. Because first lady Jackie Kennedy was home tending to a troublesome pregnancy, the president was accompanied by his two sisters, Eunice and Jean, and his sister-in-law, Lee Radziwill. "He was just so thrilled how they responded," Jean recalled years later. "I never saw him so excited. It was so touching, such a poetic experience."

A choir from the local Christian Brothers school soon broke out in a song, "The Boys of Wexford," a rousing tune commemorating the 1798 rebellion in that county in which many Irishmen, including members of Kennedy's own family, died or were injured attempting to end England's long-time presence in their land. Kennedy immediately recognized the song and began tapping his foot lightly. When a copy of the lyrics was handed to him, he joined in the chorus:

We are the Boys of Wexford, Who fought with heart and hand, To burst in twain the galling chain And free our native land.

When they finished, the president asked the children to sing it again. The tune would linger in Kennedy's mind for the remainder of his Irish trip and beyond. Another reminder of his own legacy came in one of the many gifts he received that day-a special vase of cut glass made by the nearby Waterford crystal firm, inscribed with his family's Irish homestead, an immigrant ship and the White House.

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