The Kennedy Family's Irish Roots

In Ireland, the Kennedy family, like other Catholics, suffered under restrictive penal laws. Without the right to own property, a farmer's fate of tilling someone else's land was essentially set. Patrick Kennedy, John F. Kennedy's great-grandfather, was born in 1823. As the youngest of three sons, Patrick had few options, so he worked on the family farm harvesting and planting crops.

The Journey to America

The potato famine that swept through Ireland between 1845 and 1849 wiped out the primary source of food for much of the Irish population. Hundreds of thousands of people died of starvation and disease, and many farmers were forced to abandon their livelihoods to seek government assistance.


The emigrants who boarded transport ships in Ireland bound for Liverpool faced a harsh journey. They were forced to remain on the upper deck, where they were exposed to the wind and cold, while food and livestock remained on the lower deck. Often, passengers numbered up to a thousand and had so little space they were forced to stand.

The Kennedy family continued farming, but the family finances suffered. Patrick made the decision to leave Ireland for America in the midst of the famine. It was a difficult decision, especially since the trip itself posed grave danger; at the time, many who traveled to America died on the journey. Thus, before Patrick's departure in October 1848, he visited a priest in order to receive his blessing. His family, well aware of the danger Patrick faced, bade him goodbye as they recited the emigrant's prayer, “May God bring you safely.”

Patrick made the journey from Ireland to Liverpool and he secured his passage to the New World on the Washington Irving on March 20, 1849. The ship provided a steerage section for Irish emigrants like Patrick. The emigrants remained in cramped, airless quarters in the bowels of the ship, surviving on moldy cheese and stale biscuits. Patrick Kennedy arrived in Boston about a month after his departure from England.

Creating a Life in Boston

Patrick was one step ahead of most emigrants when he arrived in America. He had an Irish friend already in Boston. Months before his journey to America, his friend Patrick Barron had made the same voyage. It is believed that through the help of Barron, who had worked at a brewery in Ireland and had taught Patrick coopering, Patrick obtained a job as a cooper. With his earnings, Patrick secured living quarters at an inexpensive boarding house in East Boston.

Starting a Family

Barron's cousin, Bridget Murphy, was also in Boston. In Ireland she had lived eight miles from the Kennedy farm. According to Kennedy family legend, Patrick and Bridget met on board the Washington Irving. However, historians have found no record of Bridget on board the ship. Instead, it is believed that Patrick and Bridget met in Ireland and planned to marry after they met up in Boston. On September 26, 1849, they were married in a Catholic church in Boston.


“When my great-grandfather left [Ireland] to become a cooper in East Boston, he carried nothing with him except two things: a strong religious faith and a strong desire for liberty. I am glad to say that all of his great-grandchildren have valued that inheritance.”

Patrick continued to work as a cooper, and Bridget earned income as a menial laborer. In 1851, they had their first child, Mary, followed by Johanna in 1852, John in 1854, and Margaret in 1855. Bridget gave birth to the couple's last child, Patrick Joseph Kennedy, called P.J., on January 14, 1858. Cholera struck the family twice. The couple's eldest son died of cholera in 1855, and Patrick Sr. succumbed to the disease on November 22, 1858.


How was cholera contracted and does it still exist today?

Cholera was the result of an inadequate sewage system and contaminated water. It was contracted through contaminated water, food, and through infected feces. Today the risk of cholera in the United States is low, but it still exists in areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

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