Kennedy clan gather at farmhouse

The eternal flame from John F Kennedy's grave is delivered by Jean Kennedy Smith and Taoiseach Enda Kenny to the port of New Ross in  Co Wexford
The eternal flame from John F Kennedy's grave is delivered by Jean Kennedy Smith and Taoiseach Enda Kenny to the port of New Ross in Co Wexford

Dozens of descendants from the world’s most famous political dynasty gathered today at a farmhouse in Ireland to mark the day John F Kennedy came back to his ancestral home.

Fifty years on from that visit - reputed to be among the US President’s happiest memories - his great-grandfather Patrick’s homestead in Dunganstown, Co Wexford, has been transformed into a 1.5 million euro museum.

Relative Patrick Grennan, 38, is the eighth generation to inherit the farm and decided 14 years ago to open a makeshift visitor centre to cater for the relentless stream of strangers knocking on his door.

The third cousin once removed to JFK is candid about the financial motivation.

“What do you do? There are people calling to your gate every day - do you talk to them all day for nothing or do you set it up so you can make an income out of it?” he said.

Grennan, a beef and grain farmer, was struggling to make a good living out of agriculture at the time. The farm was too small and he needed another income.

“It just became glaringly obvious I had to do something about it.”

In 1999, he pulled together some cash and took a small rural enterprise grant to upgrade one of the old barns.

He filled it with family history and photos of his grandmother Mary Ryan welcoming her cousin JFK to the farm in June 1963.

It was easy to pull together. Years of the same questions from people calling at his farm gate - Why did Patrick Kennedy leave in 1848? How did the Kennedys make it in America? What happened to the people who stayed on in Ireland? - dictated the exhibition.

Without any marketing at all, up to 15,000 people were making the trip every year to see where the famous Kennedy story began.

Surprisingly, less than a fifth were Americans. There was huge interest from Germans, French and English.

Before long, it became too much for a one-man-show and - in true Kennedy style - Grennan lobbied political leaders to row in behind him to secure a future for the centre.

Around five years ago former US ambassador to Ireland, and JFK’s sister, Jean Kennedy Smith brought Ireland’s then Finance Minister Brian Lenihan down to the homestead.

In the farm yard, she told him Grennan needed help. He couldn’t do it by himself anymore. He was being forced to decide between the farm and the visitor centre.

Lenihan said he would have a think about it.

When Ted Kennedy died a year later, the Government announced 1.5 million euro in funding, and plans for a new JFK Trust to take over the running of it.

Delighted, Grennan handed his property over to the State on a long-term lease with a peppercorn rent.

To mark its official opening as an “international standard” attraction and the 50th anniversary of JFK’s visit to Ireland, around 30 of the Kennedy clan returned for a day of celebrations.

A flame taken from JFK’s grave ignited a new emigrant light at the harbour in New Ross, Co Wexford.

A bust to Ted Kennedy was unveiled at the homestead. US style celebrations, with a parade and fanfare, welcomed the dignitaries, including Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

But the people of Dunganstown are taking it all in their stride.

“Nearly every year for the last 20 we have had a Kennedy in the place,” said Grennan.

“They are used to Kennedys coming around here. They don’t even bat an eyelid.”