‘’No-one surprises a Kennedy!’’ Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith said to me in a very stern voice, a voice I never heard before.
I thought I did a good job manoeuvring her extensive line of questioning in relation to a tribute video that I had just completed a day before the screening of the tribute at a special dinner before she left as US Ambassador to Ireland.
I gingerly replied; ‘’Ok so you want to ruin this surprise?’’, as I reluctantly handed over the video tape. The surprise video tape was the culmination of many days work, with people such as Seamus Heaney, U2 manager Paul McGuinness, Director of the National Museum Pat Wallace and the Arts Council’s Ciaran Benson.
Later that afternoon, Jean gave me back the tape, complimenting my work. Two hours later, when the video was screened, to my great surprise, Jean appeared genuinely excited by the contents of the video, almost as if she had never seen it before.
A lot will be written and, in time, some inside stories of her role in bringing peace to Ireland will be documented. I have had the privilege of working alongside her during various stages in her career as she certainly made peace a reality in Ireland through hard work, non-diplomatic behaviour and being a genuinely nice person with great determination.
My professional relationship with her began with Albert Reynolds at the shamrock ceremony in the White House in Washington DC. President Clinton used the landmark occasion to announce Jean’s position as US Ambassador to Ireland. The next day, her brother Teddy told me he was responsible for her appointment, as he badgered Clinton to make it happen.
Months later, we were appointed by UCD’s Professor John Kelly to run the Fulbright Scholarship. The scholarship programme was designed to give young Irish professionals an insight into American cultural exchange programmes.
During that time, our work involved spending a lot of time at the Dublin embassy and witnessing Jean’s non-diplomatic skills, which quite annoyed the US State Department on regular occasions. I must also highlight that the US Embassy in London became very agitated on regular occasions as they maintain she breached US policy on many occasions in order to carry out her job.
Jean relied heavily on her contacts, principally author and journalist Tim Pat Coogan, who was always by her side. Adorning the walls of the main hall was brightly coloured prison art, which she acquired from various inmates of the H-Blocks.
She befriended leaders of all sides, but principally Danny Morrison, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. I will always remember the day (and night) of the granting of a visa for Gerry Adams to visit the US to meet with President Clinton on the peace talks, and the impact this had on establishing peace on the island of Ireland. Jean demonstrated the fearless Kennedy
Due to her strong faith, she also formed a very close bond with Fr Alex Reid of the Redemptorist Order, a key driving force behind the earliest days of the peace process.
One of her key passions was celebrating the Kennedy legacy in Ireland. She was very determined to bring the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier to Dublin, which she did back in 1996. Affectionately known as ‘Big John’, the aircraft carrier played host to a remarkable party, which we helped organise. The centrepiece of the party on the carrier was a little known band from Dundalk called The Corrs, who helped get the party started.
On another occasion, we were hired by New Ross Urban District Council to commemorate the visit of President Kennedy in June 1963. I must acknowledge the tireless and extremely patient Chief Executive of the John F. Kennedy Trust, Sean Reidy, who we also worked with.
Following the commemoration and the unveiling of a statue of President Kennedy on the quayside in New Ross, we arranged for Jean to hammer home the point to the Irish Government representative, Brian Lenihan, that apart from the statue, there was no lasting iconic building dedicated to the great work of President Kennedy, the American alliance and the bond between our two great countries.
Later that year, the Finance Minister announced in his budget speech that funding was secured to establish a proper visitor centre at the Kennedy homestead in New Ross.
In reflecting on Jean, I am also reminded of another dear friend, Mrs Dot Tubridy, who was the catalyst of the link between JFK and Ireland.
One final appointment that we would have hoped to have her involved in was the opening of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Bridge, but it was not to be.
May Jean’s deeds in Ireland live on long in our memories.