Ireland's Ancient East, September 2016 (PART TWO)
The start of the second half of our adventures around Ireland’s Ancient East finds us bidding a fond farewell to Kilkenny and making our way through the winding roads of County Wexford to a humble, little homestead deep in the Irish countryside.
This particular homestead is probably no different to a hundred other rural homes in Ireland but is made exceptional by the fact that it is where John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s ancestors came from. JFK, 35th president of the United States of America, visited the homestead while on a state visit to Ireland in 1963. Upon his arrival at he was greeted by his cousin Mary Ryan with the words “welcome home, Jack”, more touching in their simplicity and fond familiarity than any grand address could have been.
The homestead is now a museum and visitor centre which tells the story of JFK’s Irish ancestry and the president’s homecoming, it opened in 2013 just in time for the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s visit. I was unprepared for how deeply affected I would be by this family’s incredible story of emigration, struggle and success. The story that particularly struck me was that of P.J. Kennedy, the son of Patrick who left Ireland for America in 1848.
At the age of 14 P.J. left school to work on the docks of Boston to support his mother and three sisters, his father had died of cholera the year of his birth. In 1880 he bought a small saloon in Haymarket square: the business thrived and he went on to found the first Irish Bank in Boston, the Columbia Trust Company, and began to help local people by lending them money. P.J. Kennedy kept records of people who owed him money in a desk: on his death bed, concerned about his neighbours, he asked his daughters to destroy all the contents of this desk so that borrowers would not have to pay their loans and the debts would die with him.
P.J Kennedy was the first politician in the family, a prominent figure in the Democratic Party in Boston he sat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and the Massachusetts Senate. It is clear his grandson, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, inherited not only his political talents but also his strong sense of morality. The tale of the Kennedy’s rise in American society and the president’s return visit to the place where it all started is made even more poignant because of the evident love JFK had for Ireland, calling his ancestral homeland the country for which he had the most affection, and of course because he was tragically assassinated just months after this momentous visit.
When asked what was the highlight of his visit to Ireland, President Kennedy replied “Arbour Hill” where he had seen a group of Irish Army cadets perform a special drill in remembrance of the dead. In the hours after Kennedy was assassinated, his widow, Jacqueline, made a special request for the Irish Army cadets to perform the same drill at her husband’s funeral. It is the only time in US history that foreign troops have ever rendered honours at the funeral of an American president.
Mary’s daughter was flown to America to attend President Kennedy’s funeral, before she left Jaqueline gave her her husband's Commander in Chief dog tag and the rosary beads which President Kennedy carried in his pocket on that fateful day in Dallas. These deeply personal objects can still be seen in the Kennedy Homestead and are a powerful testament to the affection that Kennedy held for Ireland and the importance with which he regarded his Irish roots.
The Kennedy Homestead’s fascinating exhibition was brought to life during our visit by our guide, Mary, who told Kennedy’s Irish story with great passion and eloquence. Above all the Kennedy Homestead is a profoundly moving monument to history and an incredibly powerful tribute to the extraordinary story of an exceptional man. It felt a great honour to follow in JFK’s footsteps and visit the place from where his great-grandfather emigrated over 150 years ago. I would recommend anyone to take the time and visit when in Ireland – just make sure you don’t forget your tissues!
After the turmoil of emotions that I found myself assailed by at the Kennedy Homestead, it was a welcome relief to be able to relax and unwind at County Wexford’s lovely Ferrycarrig Hotel. The Ferrycarrig is situated in a beautiful location right by the River Slaney and the views overlooking the water that I got from my balcony were wonderfully peaceful and calming. If the scenery isn’t enough to tempt you here, then the food might be: we were treated to a dinner in the stunning riverside restaurant and the fine-dining menu was exemplary.
The next day, making our way back towards Dublin, we entered County Wicklow and our first destination was something I had really been looking forward to. Glendalough is an early medieval monastic settlement set amid the stunning scenery of the Wicklow mountains and although we weren’t blessed with perfect weather on the day, it was still a wonderful place to visit.
St Kevin founded the settlement here in the 6th century when he sought out Glendalough, “Valley of the Two Lakes”, as a place for peaceful contemplation where he could be at one with God and nature. It’s not hard to see why Kevin chose this spot for such a pursuit, even with groups of tourists roaming around the remains of the settlement, Glendalough has a pervading atmosphere of serenity. On the day that we visited Glendalough, the misty gloom which covered the site only added to the mystical quality which hints at hidden magic in the ancient valley. It’s my belief that it’s this sense of mystery which draws visitor to Glendalough every year regardless of religion.
I would have loved more time to explore the surrounding forests and mountains but if I felt I had missed out on an opportunity for adventure and discovery, our next destination more than made up for it.
When we visited Powerscourt I was expecting the spectacular gardens that I’d seen in photographs on the internet, and I certainly got these, but what I did not expect was the elating feeling of excitement I would get from discovering the daringly imaginative and diverse grounds of Powerscourt Estate. The weather had not improved since we’d left Glendalough and although you might imagine it would be disappointing not to see the gardens in spectacular sunshine and set against a bright blue sky, I loved exploring in the rain. The gardens are so vast and varied, with hidden nooks and crannies and something different around every corner, that you get a real sense of adventure when moving through them, which was only increased by the opening of the heavens and a slight battle with the elements.
My first surprise was the Pepperpot Tower, a fairytale fortress complete with cannon which peeks out from among the trees.
The next sight to take my breath away was the remarkable Japanese garden, a veritable wonderland of winding paths, trickling streams and mossy grottos.
The great lake with its central fountain and flanking statues dominates the scene at the heart of the estate.
There is something about the statues at Powerscourt which reflects the nature of the estate, or at least reflects my experience of the grounds and gardens on this grizzly Autumn day.
The great stone figures from ancient mythology have a grand majesty about them but they also exude a very real and rugged dignity: they are not shining marble in a well-lit museum but wind-beaten and weather-stained stone, standing firm against any conditions the Irish countryside can throw at them.
At the top of the gardens statues of the twin gods, Artemis and Apollo, welcome visitors to Powerscourt. Apollo, his face turned back towards approaching visitors, seems to beckon you into the gardens while Artemis, a goddess closely associated with the wild, untamed aspect of nature, gazes out across the grounds to the Wicklow mountains. For me, it was precisely this sense of wilderness, embodied by the Greek goddess of the hunt, which makes Powerscourt estate more than just another garden.
Our final night in Ireland was spent back in the capital city where we celebrated the end of a fantastic trip at Dublin’s famous Irish House Party. The Irish House Party is a thoroughly enjoyable evening of food, drink, and top class entertainment. The Irish House Party attempts to recreate, believe it or not, the atmosphere and experience of a traditional Irish house party and it certainly succeeds in the intimate, laid-back venue of the Lansdowne Hotel.
The Irish House Party is an evening full of great food, beautiful music, fascinating history and some astonishing dancing – all an amazing display of talent and knowledge – but what really makes this a fantastic night out is the famous Irish craic, we laughed ‘til we cried. There’s no pretence here, nothing fancy (unless you count some nifty footwork on stage) just good Irish cooking, “dinner like mum would have made” and classic Irish song. The Irish House Party is an absolute must for anyone wishing to soak up some authentic Irish culture and it was the perfect final hurrah of our fantastic trip to Ireland.
Before flying home the next day we just had time for one more stop on the way to the airport. Epic Ireland is a wonderful new attraction that explores the story of Irish emigration, its causes and consequences, throughout history right up to today. The exhibitions are interactive without being in your face, all the technology on display is intelligent and enhances the experience rather than being gimmicky.
Epic Ireland is informative, moving and above all a tribute to the accomplishments of Irish people and their descendants all over the world: from science and politics to art, literature, film and music the contribution of the Irish diaspora to society and culture over the years and across the whole globe is astonishing.
In America in the late 19th century Irish immigrants were treated appallingly, shunned and insulted. But those same immigrants helped to build American cities, waterways and railways, those same immigrants fought and bled and died in the American Civil War as did their grandchildren in World War Two. Those same immigrants went on to give the United States some of its greatest and most beloved heroes from President John F. Kennedy to Hollywood icon, Gene Kelly. Epic Ireland is a fantastic celebration of Irish achievement from the docks of Boston all the way to the beaches of Australia. The positive power of the movement of people is a lesson well-learnt by the Irish and it is perhaps for this reason that they are so warm and welcoming to travellers in their own land, myself included. Thank you, Ireland.