Meet JFK's Great-Grandma: Her Ambition Begat America's Most Famous Family but Was Nearly Overlooked

Neal Thompson’sThe First Kennedys explores the family’s first arrivals from Ireland and how they fought to build a foundation for greatness

The First Kennedys
P.J. Kennedy's grocery store in Boston.

Countless books have explored the enduring influence, scandals, tragedies and triumphs of the Kennedy family, with a cast of characters that includes a president and two senators as well as other revered statesmen and women, the dutiful and stylish spouses, children and other progeny of Joseph P. Kennedy, father of John F. Kennedy.

Writer Neal Thompson's new book, The First Kennedys: The Humble Roots of an American Dynasty, peers even deeper into the past — pulling the woman responsible for the family's legacy in the U.S., Bridget Murphy Kennedy, out of the murky history of the 19th-century and into focus for modern readers.

"I think of her as the forgotten hero of that family and their history," Thompson tells PEOPLE ahead of his book's Feb. 22 release by Mariner Books.

"Everything about the legend of that family has been so focused on the men. But when you sort of peel back where it all began, it really started with this tenacious, widowed, entrepreneurial female, Bridget," Thompson says. "And I think her role in establishing the Kennedy family in America, despite really steep odds, has been completely either forgotten or intentionally overlooked or just buried under the legend of the Kennedy men."

The First Kennedys
The First Kennedys. Mariner Books

Thompson has stitched together shards of historical records on Bridget and other Irish immigrants who, pushed by poverty and pulled by the promise of opportunity, fled their homeland in so-called "coffin ships" to cross the Atlantic Ocean and escape famine in the mid 1800s.

Like Bridget, many arrived — and spent the rest of their lives — in Boston, despite an unwelcoming mood among citizens at the time who were fed up with the flood of Irish Catholics coming ashore.

"By the time Bridget arrived, Boston had roughly 140,000 residents, nearly one in four of whom had been born in Ireland," Thompson writes in The First Kennedys. "And their numbers kept growing. Another 50,000 Irish immigrants would pour into Boston through the mid-1850s — most of them female, a hive of Irish womanhood."

Well-off Protestant families in Boston employed Irish newcomers like Bridget as housekeepers, allowing them to make a little money, though escaping hardship didn't come easy in a town that kept so many in privation, uncertainty and fear during the mid- to late-1800s.

On Sept. 26, 1849, Bridget married a fellow famine refugee Patrick Kennedy, who worked first as a cask maker to provide for the family before he died less than a decade after they wed, leaving Bridget alone to raise their children — the eldest Mary, Joanna, Margaret and baby P.J., who was just 10 months old when his dad died of tuberculosis. (Another son, John, died as a baby years before Patrick).

Neal Thompson
Neal Thompson. Mariner Books

"She was clearly powerful, determined and, in her own way, an ambitious woman, who faced down the nativists who didn't want her kind, faced down the death of a son and the early death of her husband … and just survived it all and kept her family intact," Thompson says of Bridget.

Thompson uncovered some Kennedy family traits he said could be traced back to the original matriarch in America.

"Obviously, ambition is one of them, because, for example, [Bridget] was a female business owner, and an Irish immigrant one to boot, at a time when that just didn't happen that often in the anti-immigrant parts of Boston," Thompson says, referring to her evolution from domestic maid to hotel employee to hairdresser and eventually shopkeeper of a small grocery store.

Bridget also demonstrated other principles held tight by later generations of Kennedys.

The First Kennedys
Bridget Kennedy's daughter-in-law, Mary Augusta Hickey Kennedy, soon after her marriage to P.J. in 1887. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

"She was someone who understood where she came from — her wounded country of Ireland — and did what she could when she had the means to give back a little," Thompson says, describing in his book how Bridget sent some of the little money she had back to relatives in need. "There was that sense of duty and in her own way patriotism to her homeland."

Thompson also tells how Bridget was able to turn a little success into a little more, eventually purchasing the building that held her grocery store as well as the one next to it.

"She took in family members who were trying to make their way to America and get their own start," he said. "She would rent apartments to them that were up above the grocery shop. So she was community-minded, compassionate and, I think just more than anything, a survivor. A tenacious willful survivor."

One of Bridget's most enduring accomplishments, of course, was raising her children, who would bring the family closer to the American dream.

Thanks to her, "her son, P.J., is able to have his own successes and her daughters have theirs, and then the Kennedy family is allowed to continue forward only because of her," Thompson says, "so I think she deserves more credit than she'd ever gotten."

Thompson wants to give P.J. Kennedy — also "overlooked in some ways," the author says — some credit, too. "He came from nothing. Fatherless child, on the streets of East Boston, worked as a longshoreman on the docks of East Boston, right where his parents arrived decades before," he says of the early life of President Kennedy's grandfather.

The First Kennedys

"Little by little, he worked his way up … clearly inspired by his mother's entrepreneurial tendencies and influence, he found a way to open his own saloon, and then another one, and then another one," Thompson says. "Getting involved in the liquor business introduces him to Democratic politics. And he becomes a community organizer and an award leader in East Boston and then serves seven terms in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and the Senate."

P.J.'s political ascent, Thompson believes, "was really a key influence on the subsequent generations of Kennedy politicians."

President Kennedy never mentioned his great-grandmother, Bridget, though he did speak about her husband, the barrel maker, and those who came to American in search of opportunity. Their plight shaped his worldview, as he wrote about in A Nation of Immigrants.

"I wish I knew," Thompson says when asked about why the most famous Kennedy never mentioned Bridget. "I find it odd that he didn't, as someone who publicly would at times champion the role that immigrants have played in America, he didn't go out of his way to credit or acknowledge or lionize his own great-grandmother."

But Thompson has his theories as to why that could be.

The First Kennedys
P.J. Kennedy's wife Mary with daughter Loretta and son Joe at Old Orchard Beach in 1896. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

"The Kennedy men often had complicated relationships with the women in their lives and they weren't perfect role models in that regard," he says. "So I don't know if there was some misogyny lurking there or if it was just an omission based on limited knowledge of where his people came from, which is a possibility."

As for that gap in the family's history, Thompson says through his research he found that among the descendants alive today, there "wasn't a lot of curiosity about the 19th-century Kennedys and where they came from."

"I think some of that has to do with Joe," Thompson says, referring to President Kennedy's father and Bridget's grandson.

"He was someone who did not embrace his Irishness," Thompson explains. "He was eager to put behind him his roots as a second-generation Irish-American and wanted to be known as American … He wanted to put behind him his family's immigrant past."

Joe's son, though, "had a more nuanced relationship with that," Thompson says, adding that A Nation of Immigrants remains "very relevant to our complicated relationship these days to immigrants and immigration."

The First Kennedys
P.J. and Mary Kennedy with their daughters, Margaret and Loretta, around 1917. John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library Foundation

The theme of crossings and new arrivals to the nation makes The First Kennedys especially relevant in 2022. Thompson's depictions of the harsh realities those immigrants faced in their new home and from their new countrymen and women are atrocious but also familiar.

"I was surprised, as a researcher, to discover just how hard certain groups fought to keep, not just Irish immigrants out of America, but to control how they lived here," Thompson says.

That fight, he says, was meant to "keep them on the lowest realms, prevent them from voting, sort of de-legitimize their religion and their beliefs and their experience."

Thompson says the Irish women and men he writes about, who came to the U.S. in the 1800s, would not be shocked by the fraught nature of immigration in the country today, despite the now-recognized accomplishments they — and the generations that followed — achieved in all aspects of American society.

"Not just the Irish," Thompson says, "but every other subsequent wave of newcomer to America, probably wouldn't be too surprised that we're still hearing those same cries today from those nativist forces and voices that don't believe in the power of a nation of immigrants."

The First Kennedys will be published on Feb. 22.

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