The First Kennedys: The Humble Roots of an American Dynasty by Neal Thompson #NetGalley #ARCReview

Release date: February 22, 2022

Based on genealogical breakthroughs and previously unreleased records, this is the first book to explore the inspiring story of the poor Irish refugee couple who escaped famine, created a life together in a city hostile to Irish, immigrants, and Catholics, and launched the Kennedy dynasty in America.

Their Irish ancestry was a hallmark of the Kennedys’ initial political profile, as JFK leveraged his working-class roots to connect with blue-collar voters. Today, we remember this iconic American family as the vanguard of wealth, power, and style rather than as the descendants of poor immigrants. Here at last, we meet the first American Kennedys, Patrick and Bridget, who arrived as many thousands of others did following the Great Famine—penniless and hungry. Less than a decade after their marriage in Boston, Patrick’s sudden death left Bridget to raise their children single-handedly. Her rise from housemaid to shop owner in the face of rampant poverty and discrimination kept her family intact, allowing her only son P.J. to become a successful saloon owner and businessman. P.J. went on to become the first American Kennedy elected to public office—the first of many.

Written by the grandson of an Irish immigrant couple and based on first-ever access to P.J. Kennedy’s private papers, The First Kennedys is a story of sacrifice and survival, resistance and reinvention: an American story.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, then you know I read anything relating to the Kennedy family. They are a fascinating look at how an immigrant family rises to the pinnacle of success, the U.S. Presidency. It’s a story that rarely happens, and some will say it can only happen in the United States. When NetGalley, Neal Thompson, and Mariner Books provided me with a copy of The First Kennedys: The Humble Roots of an American Dynasty (Amazon), I couldn’t wait to find out more about the Kennedys who first arrived in America. All opinions given are my own.

Instead of focusing on Joe and Rose Kennedy as so many family biographies do, this goes back two generations to Joe Kennedy’s grandparents, Bridget and Patrick Kennedy, who came over from Ireland during the Great Potato Famine of the 1840’s. But because there is scant information about the two, rather we get an exhaustive look at life in both Ireland and Massachusetts during that time frame. It certainly helps paint a clearer picture of what Bridget and Patrick faced when they came to America. The discrimination against Irish was appalling, indeed against any Catholic immigrants, and the Kennedys were no exception.

Bridget faced a harder time, being a woman who had no skills other than housework and farming. But she had some family in the Boston area, and that helped. But work was hard to come by because so many Irish were coming to their shores. Soon enough Bridget got a job as a housekeeper.

Patrick Kennedy emigrated a few years later and became skilled as a barrel maker. It was a step or two above digging ditches, but there was still hardship. When Bridget and Patrick met and married, they were older than the average Irish men and women who married. And soon after, they started a family.

For ten years the family toiled and worked their butts off in menial jobs, and the family continued to grow. Then, the unthinkable happened. Patrick died, leaving Bridget to raise her children on her own. As is shown in the book, she did have some help from relations, but was largely on her own. Eventually, she scraped together the money (and was perhaps loaned some by those same family members) and bought a general goods store. It proved to be a lot of hard work, but let’s face it, everything Bridget had to do in her life was a lot of hard work. Somehow she made it work, and her young son P.J. learned a lot from her.

But P.J. was also a boy without a father and was sort of a juvenile delinquent. Somehow he straightened out enough to work on the docks and decide he was not going to spend his life doing that. With his mother’s help, he opened a saloon and proved adept at being a saloonkeeper. He also enjoyed the politicking that happened in saloons, and got involved in local elections. The Irish contingent in Boston was starting to make inroads in elected office, and P.J. was there at the beginning. While he did run for and was elected to office, for the most part he worked behind the scenes.

We’re also introduced to a young John Fitzgerald, another Irishman with a penchant for politics. He and P.J. worked together and at times at odds with one another in Massachusetts politics. It was John Fitzgerald’s daughter, Rose, who caught the eye of P.J.’s son, Joe, that continued the foray into politics with their children’s lives.

A solid entry into the Kennedy canon. If you want to more about the Kennedy family, or life for the Irish immigrants in the United States, this book is for you.

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