The Fermanagh roots of John F. Kennedy

Posted By: January 26, 2023


Fr. Ultan McGooghan, author of key article on Roseanna Cox, Fr. McManus, and Hubert McCaffrey, owner of land where Roseann was born and reared. Photo taken in 2018.

The Fermanagh roots of John F. Kennedy

                                               Rev. Ultan McGoohan.  February 2018

Those of my generation remember exactly where we were when we heard that Diana, Princess of Wales, had died. Those of an older generation remember exactly where they were when the news broke that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. It is one of the red-letter days in history. John F. Kennedy is remembered as being more than just another politician. He is remembered as an icon, someone who embodied the hopes and dreams of a new generation. His style, wit, elegance, oratory and vision have ensured that in survey after survey he is ranked amongst the greatest U.S. presidents. In the film Nixon, there is a wonderful scene, where President Nixon is wandering around the White House late at night, as his presidency collapses in chaos, and he looks up at a portrait of his nemesis Kennedy and says: when people look at me, they see what they are; when they look at you, they see what they want to be.

The death of President Kennedy was hugely impactful here in Ireland. The whole country had turned out to see him on his historic four-day visit in June 1963, just five months before his death. The visit meant a great deal to the President and when he returned home, at the weekends he would play again and again the film recording of his trip, for family and friends. It touched something deep in his soul. As he remarked himself afterwards to friends, those four days in Ireland were the happiest of his life.

Among the places he visited on that trip was Arbour Hill, where the 1916 leaders are interred. He was deeply impressed by the ceremonial drill of the Irish Army Cadets on that occasion. So much so that he discussed it with his wife Jackie, when he returned home. Five months later, at his funeral in Arlington Cemetery, Jackie organized that the Irish Cadets, would carry out the ceremonial at the President’s burial – an extraordinary honor to confer on a foreign nation. Jackie Kennedy did not accompany the President on his trip to Ireland as she was pregnant at the time. Sadly, her new-born child, died shortly after his birth, and it is not without significance, that his parents named him, Patrick.

June 1963 was not JFK’s first trip to Ireland. His first visit to Ireland was as a journalist in the summer of 1945, when he was just twenty-eight years old. He met and interviewed the leading politicians of the day, including the Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera. The interviews formed the basis of an article on partition published in the New York Journal American.[1]

Two years later, in September 1947, now a young Congressman, Kennedy came to Ireland on holidays. He had come in search of his roots. He stayed with his sister Kathleen at Lismore Castle, in Co. Waterford. Kathleen had married the son of the Duke of Devonshire and had recently been widowed. Pamela Churchill, daughter-in-law of Winston, was staying at the Castle and she accompanied Kennedy, as he went in search of his family at Dunganstown, Co Wexford. There he met his third cousin, Mary Ryan and the extended family. They told him of his grandfather – P.J. Kennedy’s – visit home thirty years earlier. By all accounts he received a warm welcome. On the way back to the castle, Pamela Churchill, made some derogatory comment about the humble living conditions of his Irish cousins. Years later Kennedy recalled: I felt like kicking her out of the car! For me, the visit to that cottage was filled with magic sentiment. That night at the castle…I looked around the table and thought about the cottage where my cousins lived, and I said to myself, “What a contrast!” [2]

Later in that same year, 1947, Kennedy supported a Bill in Congress proposing that post-war aid for Britain, should be contingent on ending partition in Ireland. The Bill was defeated.

Eight years later in September 1955, JFK – now a senator – brought his new wife Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy to Ireland. It was a political visit, largely confined to Dublin as Kennedy was on crutches at the time and was unable to travel more widely.

I have mentioned these trips to emphasize that JFK’s interest in Ireland was not just one of political expediency designed to get the Irish-American vote. Ireland genuinely meant a great deal to the president and his interest in Ireland was of long duration.

I think it is important to emphasize that point. Many critics today argue that Kennedy’s 1963 visit was all blarney – what did he do for Ireland as President, particularly around the issue of partition, they ask? That argument ignores the context of Kennedy’s presidency. The pre-occupying foreign affairs issue of his presidency was preventing the expansion of communism in western Europe, Asia and south America. There was a genuine fear that the future of democracy was in jeopardy. During his short presidency – not even completing his first term – Kennedy was confronted by the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the instability in South-East Asia, that ultimately would lead to war in Vietnam. Britain, as a member of NATO, was a key US ally in what was perceived to be a life and death struggle. In that scenario, from a US perspective, it was not in the American national interest to push Britain on the issue of partition in Ireland. President Kennedy expressed the wish that after the presidency he would like to serve as Ambassador to Ireland. Presuming that he would have served a second term, it might have transpired that he would have come to Ireland during the Civil Rights protests here in the north and the beginning of the troubles. How he would have reacted and responded to those developments must remain one of the great ‘what if’s’ of Irish history. By an extraordinary twist of fate his sister Jean Kennedy Smith would serve as Ambassador during a crucial period in the peace process in the 1990s. It was through her influence that despite the resistance of the US State Department, that President Clinton provided Gerry Adams with a visa allowing him to enter the United States to consult with Irish-American republicans at a crucial moment in the peace process.

All of this is just a preface for the main focus of this presentation. I want to look at the beginnings of this great Irish-American family and to highlight what I believe has been a too long ignored connection with this part of Fermanagh.

When President Kennedy visited Ireland in 1963, Eamon de Valera described him as a ‘proud scion of our race.’ It was an apt phrase, for in terms of blood and genetics, John F. Kennedy was 100 per cent Irish. All of his eight great-grandparents were Irish, and his grandparents and parents married into purely Irish-American families.

The Kennedy story famously began in Dunganstown, Co Wexford, when Patrick Kennedy emigrated to Boston in the famine year of 1849. He was more fortunate than many of his fellow Irish emigrants because he had a trade. He was a cooper. It is estimated that coopers in 1855 earned $1.42 a day, 50 cents more than unskilled labourers. [3]

On September 26, 1849, five months after arriving in Boston, Patrick married another Wexford emigrant, Bridget Murphy. It is likely that he knew her from home. They had five children[4]; the youngest was Patrick Joseph (P.J.) Kennedy born on 14 January 1858, the future grandfather of President Kennedy. Later that year, Patrick succumbed to cholera and died on 22 November 1858, strangely, the very same date that his famous great- grandson died on, 105 years later. During his illness, Patrick’s income dried up and his wife and children were left destitute.

But Bridget Murphy Kennedy was a woman to be reckoned with and she rose to the occasion. She took a job in a store in East Boston and eventually saved enough money to buy the store and expanded it into a bar. Her son PJ received a good education, took over the business, and made it a success and in time developed various other business interests. He became involved in politics on behalf of the Democratic party and at the age of twenty-eight he won by a landslide a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1886. The Kennedy’s were on their way. PJ Kennedy married the daughter of a Cork immigrant family, Mary Augusta Hickey. The Hickey’s were better off than the Kennedy’s as Mary Augusta’s father had built up a successful building contractor business and these more successful Irish, were known as ‘lace curtain Irish.’

Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy offered this pen-picture of her father-in-law P.J. Kennedy:

As bartender, host and proprietor, P.J. Kennedy found himself in the middle of East End news, gossip, celebrations, hopes and fears, troubles and tragedies. He was a good listener, knew how to keep confidences, and had a compassionate spirit. He helped people with loans, gifts and advice. …He was 5 feet 10 inches, with a brawny physique, blue eyes, a rain-washed rosy complexion, reddish hair and a handlebar mustache that swooped gracefully, adding to his air of composure and dignity. Predictably he became a political force in East Boston. And before long, he was the most influential figure of that whole region of the city. [5]

In September 1888, PJ and Mary Augusta’s first child was born – Joseph Patrick Kennedy – the father of the future President.

So, what about the other side of President Kennedy’s family? His great-grandfather was Thomas Fitzgerald born in Bruff, Co. Limerick in 1823. Thomas emigrated to Boston in the famine year of 1852. Five years later he married Rosanna Cox in 1857. Rosanna Cox is our local connection to President Kennedy, and I will return to that shortly.  Thomas Fitzgerald worked in a small grocery and package goods store, selling milk, flour and foodstuffs by day and running a popular bar at night. The Fitzgerald’s in terms of income were comfortable.[6] Thomas Fitzgerald and Rosanna Cox had twelve children, three of whom died in infancy, another son Joseph was severely handicapped due to brain damage from malaria and only three of the family survived into adulthood with good health. Their son John F. Fitzgerald, the future Mayor of Boston was the fourth of twelve children. His father wanted him to become a doctor, so that other families did not suffer the same tragedies as had beset the Fitzgerald’s. John F. Fitzgerald spent two years at Harvard Medical School, but following the death of his father in 1885, he dropped out of medical school, lured away by the pull of politics. He is best remembered by the nickname Honey Fitz, due to his charming manner. Famously, at speech rally’s he was known to sing rather than make a speech and his party piece was the song Sweet Adeline. Matthew Keany, the ward boss of the north end of the city took him under his wing. When Keany died suddenly from pneumonia, Fitzgerald at the age of 29, took his place as the new boss of the North End. Subsequently he was elected to Congress in 1895 and was Mayor of Boston from 1905-7, and 1910-12, the third Irish-American to be elected Mayor of what was a very segregated and Protestant city. John F. was a real extrovert and was much loved by his grandchildren.

He had wonderful azure blue eyes…and boundless curiosity; so he read everything within reach….And what he read he remembered.[7]

He married Mary Josephine Hannon and their daughter Rose Fitzgerald married Joseph P Kennedy, son of PJ and they were the parents of President Kennedy and his extraordinary brothers and sisters.

So, let’s return to our local interest, Rosanna Cox, the great-grandmother of the President, who married Thomas Fitzgerald. It is believed that she was born in the mid-1830s in Tomregan, Co. Cavan. That is what appears in most of the official information on the Kennedy family tree, including at the Kennedy homestead in Dunganstown. However, at the Kennedy homestead, they have the added detail that she came from the townland of Tonymore, Tomregan, Co. Cavan. We know that Tonymore is a townland in the parish of Knockninny, Co Fermanagh; and I will clarify shortly why the record at Dunganstown is only half right.

The record of her marriage in Boston indicates her father was Philip Cox. There is a baptismal record for Philip Cox, born in Kinawley parish on the 25 May 1837, son of Philip Cox and Mary Magauran/McGovern. I don’t know what part of Kinawley. The parish of Kinawley also includes Swanlinbar. All the indicators suggest that baby Philip was the brother of Rosanna. Again, genealogies of the Kennedy family state that Rosanna’s parents were Philip Cox and Mary Magauran, so that fits in to the information we have.

Our next piece of evidence is Griffith’s Land Valuation of 1862. In the townland of Toneymore West we find Philip Cox, in association with Edward Drum, Margaret McGovern, Patrick Reilly (Hurley) and Patrick Reilly (Clarke), renting together the 298-acre mountain. Philip’s part of that land was valued at £1, 10s.  Independently, Philip was also renting a house, outhouses and land valued at £3, 15s. [8]

We are fortunate that the parish registers in Knockninny parish begin as early as 1835. I have searched the parish baptismal and marriage records from 1835-70 and have found no reference to Rosanna or to Philip Cox Sr. or Jr. However, the family are in Tonymore in 1862 and well established at that stage judging by the extent of the property they were renting.

Here is where our story gets a little complicated. There are blanks that we cannot fill in. We do not know what happened to Rosana’s parents or to her brother Philip. They disappear from the records. That is not unusual because birth, marriage and death records for the first half of the nineteenth century are hard to come by. Recording such information was not a priority in a society where people were struggling to survive. It would seem however that Philip Cox listed in Tonymore in 1862 was not Rosanna’s father or her brother. Philip from Tonymore died on 30 January 1892 at the age of 91, and so was born, c.1801. He had a son Thomas born in 1837 and who died in 1901, aged 64. Thomas was married to Bridget Cox, nee Magauran/McGovern, the last of the Cox family to reside in Tonymore and she died in 1931. Yet Rosanna Cox Fitzgerald listed Tonymore, Tomregan, as her home in Ireland and not Kinawley. It was not unusual in those times for a child to be reared by relations other than parents for all sorts of reasons and until the blanks are filled, we must assume that some similar arrangement occurred in Rosanna’s childhood. Presumably Rosanna emigrated to America in her late teens or early twenties, and hence she would have spent some or all her formative years in Tonymore.

The chroniclers of the Kennedy family as I mentioned earlier, record Rosanna Cox, as being a native of Tomregan, Co. Cavan. This is only partially true. Tomregan was the designated civil name for a group of townlands some of which are in Co. Cavan (Ballyconnell area) and the others in Co. Fermanagh. Most of Tomregan’s constituent townlands are situated in County Cavan, with the remainder in County Fermanagh. The Roman Catholic parish of Tomregan was split up in the early 18th century, with the County Fermanagh townlands being assigned to the parish of Knockninny while the County Cavan townlands were united with the parish of Kildallan. The Fermanagh townlands in Tomregan civil parish are- Aghindisert, Carickaleese, Cloncoohy, Derrintony, Derryart, Garvary, Gortahurk, Gortaree, Gortineddan, Gortmullan, Knockadoois, Knockateggal, Ummera and Tonymore, where Philip Cox resided. So, Philip Cox, was living in the Civil Parish of Tomregan, but in the Roman Catholic parish of Knockninny. The Church of Ireland parish of Tomregan to this day still includes the townlands that are in Fermanagh.

The Kennedy Centre at Dunganstown designates Tonymore as the townland where Rosanna Cox originated, and we have documentary proof of the Cox family farming and residing in Tonymore in the 1860s.

Just before Christmas, Hubert McCaffrey and his daughters brought me to see the remains of the Cox homestead on his farm in Tonymore. It was wonderful to discover that the remains of the house still stand, and I believe it is a very tangible connection between this area and the Kennedy Family.

Rosanna Cox, the great-grandmother of President Kennedy, who married Thomas Fitzgerald died in 1879, when her son John F, (Honey Fitz) was just 16 years old. She died suddenly when she heard a rumour that her entire family had been killed in a train accident on their way to a Sunday School picnic. The poor woman died from shock. The rumour of course was untrue. She was probably not even fifty years old. It was yet another tragedy for the Fitzgerald family. She did not live to see her son elected to Congress and elected on two occasions as the Mayor of Boston and she of course could never have imagined that her great-grandson, would be elected as the first Catholic President of the United States. It was a long way from Tonymore.

In summary, I am proposing that there has been a mistake. Rosanna Cox was not a Cavan woman, but a Fermanagh woman. We know her father was Philip Cox and there is a baptism registered to Philip Cox and Mary McGauran/McGovern in Kinawley parish. We know she gave her home address as Tonymore Tomregan, Co. Cavan. Tonymore is in the civil parish of Tomregan, the home address given at the Kennedy Centre in the United States and in Dunganstown, as the birthplace of Rosanna. As we now know, Tomregan was a civil parish, but Tonymore is in the Catholic ecclesiastical parish of Knockninny. At the time Tomregan, was probably still being used as a postal address by the residents of Tonymore. We can claim her as a Fermanagh woman, with Kinawley and Knockninny roots and to be even more parochial, we might call her a Teemore woman!

Unfortunately, with the passage of time and the gaps in documentary evidence, the paper trail will never be as perfect as we might wish. We are as near the truth of things as we can ever hope to be. It would be tremendous to gather together a group of like-minded people to make something of this Fermanagh connection with the Kennedy Family. Since I spoke last December in Aughakillymaude, this discovery has evoked a great deal of media interest and has been widely covered by the Fermanagh Herald, the Anglo-Celt and Northern Sound. It has been reported in the most popular Irish-American news website, and just yesterday BBC NI came to Teemore to film the story for Radio Ulster and for the evening news programme Newsline. It will be broadcast in the next week or so and also appear on the BBC News website. It has all been positive publicity for Teemore. The recently formed Teemore Regeneration Group hope to include the Cox Homestead in their efforts to enhance and draw attention to our beautiful area. There may be further information out there in the community that people have without realising it and this talk this evening is just another step in a long-term project. Since the ruins of the Cox homestead still stand, I see no reason not to invite some of the Kennedy family, who visit Ireland often, to come to this beautiful part of our country, and to see for themselves the place where their forgotten ancestor Rosanna Cox, the great-grandmother of a President came from.


[1] Tubridy, 26-7

[2] Tubridy, 30-1

[3] David Nasaw, The Patriarch, p.7.

[4] Mary (1851), Johanna (1852), John (1854), Margaret (1855), PJ (1858)

[5] Rose Fitzgerald’s Family Album, p.8 (Hachette Book Group, New York. 2013).

[6] Thomas H. O’Connor, The Boston Irish: A Political History, (Connecticut, 1995), 142-4.

[7] Kennedy Family Album, 10.

[8] All is rented from Robert Collins