Ambition in Their Blood
In 1848, a beleaguered farmer named Patrick Kennedy emigrated from Ireland during the Great Potato Famine. He made his home in Boston and started a family, but he died of cholera in 1858, the same year his son Patrick Joseph, or P. J., was born. Patrick's widow, Bridget, never remarried. Instead she supported P. J. and her three daughters with single-minded determination. She worked for a while as a shop clerk, then later as a hairdresser. Eventually Bridget co-owned a small shop that sold sewing supplies. Bridget's daughters helped out by looking after their little brother while he attended school at the Sisters of Notre Dame.
The great Irish potato famine began in September 1845 when previously healthy potato plants began to rot in the ground. It was later determined that an airborne fungus brought to the United Kingdom from North America was responsible. An estimated one million Irish — one out of every nine — died in the 1840s as a result of the famine.
A Working Man
When P. J. turned fourteen, Bridget told him it was time to start working, and he got a job as a packer at the East Boston Shipyards. Like his mother, P. J. was careful with his money. He lived simply and saved as much as he could. With the help of his mother and sisters, he was able to buy a dilapidated tavern in a seedy Boston neighborhood. Although he did not drink, P. J. knew that bars were an integral part of Boston's immigrant culture. The saloon made enough money for P.J. to buy another. Both prospered, and Kennedy became a well-known figure in Boston. In 1885, he established P. J. Kennedy and Company, a wholesale liquor import business. That same year he decided to run for political office and was elected to the Massachusetts State Assembly.
A Family Man
In 1887, P.J. married Mary Augusta Hickey, the daughter of a prosperous businessman in the city. They lived in a large town house in East Boston, where they started a family. A son, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, was born in 1888, and two daughters followed. P. J. served six years as an assemblyman before running for the State Senate. He won easily. His import business was making so much money that in 1895 he cofounded a bank, the Columbia Trust Company. He and Mary moved out of East Boston and into a mansion near the city's financial district. He employed a large staff who tended to the wants and desires of his family. It was in this environment of privilege that P. J.'s son, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, grew up.
Even though he was respected and successful, P. J. never forgot his humble beginnings. He instilled a furious work ethic in his son and made it clear that anything less than first place amounted to failure. Young Joseph took his father's lessons to heart. As a teenager he spent every spare minute dreaming up new ways to earn money. He hawked newspapers, did go for work at his father's bank, and sold snacks to dockworkers. He even ran errands for Orthodox Jews on Saturday when their faith prohibited them from working on their own. Joseph was determined to make his father proud by becoming even more successful than P. J.
East Boston was originally five unconnected islands — Noddle, Hog, Governor's, Bird, and Apple — that were joined through landfill in the early nineteenth century. The area was home to a succession of Boston's diverse immigrant population, alternately Irish, Jewish, Italian, and now Latino. In the 1850s, East Boston was a well-regarded shipbuilding site and today is home to Logan International Airport.