John F. Kennedy’s birthplace, at 83 Beals Street in Brookline, Massachusetts, is today a national historic site. To a modern visitor the home feels confined, with a compact kitchen and modest-size bedrooms, but in the fall of 1914, when Joseph Kennedy bought the house to raise what he and his wife, Rose, hoped would be a large family, it seemed ideal, situated as it was on a pleasant street in a middle-class neighborhood made up of people like themselves, who had ambitions but not much cash, who sought a good address as proof they had arrived—or were arriving. The trolley to Boston was but a short walk away, and St. Aidan’s Roman Catholic Church and the Edward Devotion public school were nearby. To finance the purchase, Joe borrowed $2,000 for the down payment and took a mortgage for the remaining $4,500.
The street, named after the wealthy speculator who originally bought the land, had been laid out only two decades earlier, during the streetcar boom of the 1890s. In the years thereafter, a variety of tightly packed brick-and-timber tract homes popped up on both sides of the street, behind sidewalks and tastefully planted maple trees. But with the economic downturn of 1910, construction stopped, and in 1914, number 83 was the last house in the row, beyond which stood a succession of empty plots to the next corner. With a gabled roof and a large white front porch where toddlers could play, the five-year-old home boasted three bedrooms on the second floor and two more on the third, while the kitchen featured a large black-iron coal-and-gas stove.
Brookline in 1914 was one of the wealthiest municipalities in the Northeast, which surely added to its allure for the young Joe Kennedy. He could not yet afford to live in the pricier neighborhoods south of Boylston Street, with their grand homes and manicured gardens along gently winding streets, but at least he and Rose were now residents of the town. For the better part of a century, many of the biggest names in Boston society had kept summer homes in Brookline. Over time, some opted to make the quiet summer town their year-round residence, adopting the English model of an aristocratic elite rooted in the country, the better to separate themselves from the seamy underside of industrialization and the influx of immigrants. The Lowells, Cabots, Sargents, Amorys, Codmans, and other prominent families all came, creating a larger concentration of Brahmins than in perhaps any other town in the region. As the money flowed in, Brookline acquired more urban services than most surrounding towns; by the 1850s, it had one of the best school systems in New England, as well as an excellent public library; by the turn of the century, there were sewers and telephone lines. Although the town housed a sizable working-class population to serve the needs of the wealthy and had a growing middle class, 36 percent of the town’s residents were wealthy enough to employ live-in domestic servants.
History does not record whether Joe and Rose, on their first evening in that new home, reflected on how far their respective families had come since their grandparents arrived from Ireland six decades before. Joe in particular was not the introspective sort. But they needed no one to tell them that they were benefiting from improvements in the lot of Irish Americans scarcely imaginable to that earlier generation.
Patrick Kennedy wasn’t thinking that far ahead in October 1848 when he made his way on foot—so it is said—from Dunganstown, a town in southwest County Wexford, along the River Barrow, down to New Ross, six miles away, to board a ship to Liverpool and from there, he hoped, to the New World. He was just trying to escape an Ireland that was three years into a catastrophic famine.
In 1845, following an unusually wet summer, a mysterious blight caused the potato crop to fail. The disease had crossed the Atlantic on ships bound for European ports and thence reached Ireland, carried across the Irish Sea by rain and wind. Desperate farmers and peasants tried to stop the scourge by cutting off the blackened leaves and stalks, only to find that the tubers had rotted completely. For a time farmers assumed it was a fluke event, a one-off, but early in 1846 the deadly fungus reappeared, and by the end of that summer more than 90 percent of Ireland’s potato crop was gone. By early October, many Irish towns reported having not a single loaf of bread or pound of grain to feed their residents. A harsh winter followed, with cold rains and snow, and in 1847 potato yields were a fraction of what they had been in 1844.
This might have been less of a problem had not the potato been such a staple of the Irish diet. Introduced to Ireland in the late sixteenth century, it became in time critically important. More than half of the population of eight million relied on it as their main source of nourishment; upwards of a third, including the poorest of the poor, survived on it almost exclusively. The potato was an ideal subsistence food for Irish peasants, since it was highly nutritious (the Irish were among the tallest and most fertile people in Europe, if also perhaps the most impoverished) and since impressive yields could be had on small plots of land and even in poor conditions. Except when the crop failed. As conditions deteriorated, hunger spread, then starvation. Some families took to the road, wandering from village to village, hoping forlornly that someone would take them in. Others waited in their cottages, shared their remaining morsels, and died quietly, one by one. Many who avoided starvation succumbed to typhus, which spread rapidly among the weakened population.
All told, about one million people died between 1846 and 1851 from starvation or disease, a figure amounting to 13 percent of Ireland’s population. The effects were most severe in the west and southwest—in Mayo and Clare and Kerry, people died by the tens of thousands—but Wexford, too, suffered greatly. “Deaths from famine had been numerous . . . caused by the utter want of food,” reported the Wexford Independent in January 1847, and one shopkeeper wrote that “the young and old are dying as fast as they can bury them, [for] the fever is rageing here at such arate that there are in healthy in the morning knows not but in the Evening may have taken the infection.”
The worst of the suffering might have been avoided had British authorities been more attentive or compassionate. But Parliament’s response was piecemeal and inadequate, confirming for many Irish what they could expect from their alien oppressors across the Irish Sea. For centuries the English had exploited them, maltreated them; why should it be any different now? Many London observers believed that the famine was God’s work and endorsed the view of Charles Trevelyan, the director of government relief, that Ireland’s “great evil” was not famine but “the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.” In the summer of 1847, an officially sanctioned soup kitchen program fed almost three million people, suggesting what kind of relief could be mobilized by the British state, but the program was shut down that fall. Under an Irish Poor Law Extension Act, Parliament shifted the burden of famine relief away from central government to local Irish communities, who would ostensibly raise their own tax funds for poor relief. A clause in the law stipulated that any head of household renting more than a tenth of a hectare of land would be ineligible for public assistance. Some tenants starved to death rather than give up land to their landlord; many others abandoned their farms, accepted relief, and, faced with extreme poverty, chose the route of emigration. All told, two million Irish men and women, the majority of them Catholic and from the south and west of the country, fled for points overseas during the decade following the famine’s outbreak. The vast majority ended up in the United States.
The less fortunate were the first to leave, but they were not the least fortunate in most cases, because the journey required some savings or other assets that could be converted into cash. In the words of economic historian Cormac Ó Gráda, “In the hierarchy of suffering the poorest of the poor emigrated to the next world; those who emigrated to the New World had the resources to escape.”
Twenty-six-year-old Patrick Kennedy was among the latter. His exact reasons for leaving remain a mystery, but as the third-born son he knew that even if conditions improved, he would have little chance of inheriting the family farm—or of gaining access to any other parcel of land, for that matter. True, the Kennedys were comparatively well-off in Dunganstown, and had been spared the worst of the famine, but even so, the future for someone in Pat’s position was bleak. So he set his sights on the far side of the Atlantic, on “the States,” that strange and wondrous place so often discussed at family gatherings. America offered hope to people like him, and, what’s more, there were already substantial numbers of Irish in the United States to welcome the newcomers to its shores.
Copyright © 2020 by Fredrik Logevall. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.