Robert F. Kennedy Jr. fondly recalled niece Saoirse as a "flaxen-haired Irish sprite, with sparkling eyes, peeling laughter and a thick brogue"
Saoirse Kennedy Hill’s roots grew deep in Ireland, where her father was born and where she spent part of her childhood.
The 22-year-old granddaughter of Robert F. Kennedy and only daughter of Courtney Kennedy Hill and Paul Hill, Saoirse died Aug. 1 of an accidental drug and alcohol overdose, cutting short a life that stretched across the Atlantic Ocean — from the Kennedy’s storied family compound in Massachusetts to the Emerald Isle.
Though born in the United States, Saoirse moved with her parents to Hill’s native Ireland at 4 years old, uncle Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said in a moving eulogy given at her funeral.
There the family settled in Fanore, Courtney told Irish radio station RTE in May. A small coastal village, Fanore is part of the Gaeltacht, an Irish-speaking community with long stretches of sandy beaches popular with walkers and surfers.
“We got to go to the ocean every day,” Courtney said on RTE.
“I’d been to Ireland a lot and I always fell in love with it, it always felt like home,” she said. “Because Paul was here and Saoirse was only 4, it seemed like a good time to come over and be able to do that, and it was fabulous.”
Life in Fanore, where Saoirse attended primary school, was simple, as the village offered just one shop, one post office and one pub.
“You’d take no notice of them,” a local told PEOPLE this summer. “There were just like anyone else.”
The family made some lasting memories: The Irish singer Luka Bloom has said that Hill, a friend, inspired his song “Thank You for Bringing Me Here” with a story of walking on the beach in Fanore with a young Saoirse.
The family soon moved about 16 miles south to Lahinch, a slightly more bustling town boasting shops, pubs, restaurants and hotels frequented by Courtney, with Saoirse in tow.
Other residents said the mother and daughter fit into the community well and were often spotted eating at restaurants and shopping for gifts to send back to America at Kenny’s Woolen Mills, a clothing store.
“She was as common as muck. There were no airs about here. What you see is what you get,” one townsperson told PEOPLE of Courtney. “She’s a lovely person and she and Saoirse were always together. … Saoirse was a beautiful girl. She had loads of friends.”
Courtney and Paul reportedly divorced after a 2006 separation (though Courtney has insisted they remain together), and Saoirse’s childhood in Ireland ended: Her uncle said she left Ireland at 8 years old. But she stayed in touch with friends there and visited them on what is believed to be her final trip to Ireland, during her spring break from Boston College in 2018, Courtney told RTE.
“She has close friends in Lahinch and she stays with a family there,” family friend Tony McGann told PEOPLE. “She was very close to Ireland.”
Saoirse also made time to visit with her paternal grandmother, Lily, as well as Dot Tubridy, who passed shortly after her 2018 trip. Tubridy was a close family friend and Courtney’s godmother and popularized the tradition of the Waterford crystal bowl of shamrocks the White House receives each year.
“Saoirse was probably more Irish in some ways. She might have been better off staying here,” McGann told PEOPLE, adding that he believed spending time with her grandmother offered an escape for Saoirse from the high-profile and baggage of the Kennedy name.
“She might have been attracted to that life. They are lovely people with no pretensions,” McGann said of Ireland. “She could connect. She felt very close to them.”
He also noted that Saoirse’s grandmother Lily, a “wonderful woman,” had weathered earlier troubles. Hill, her son, who was born in Belfast, was one of the “Guildford Four.” He was wrongly imprisoned for 15 years, starting when he was 20 years old, after he was wrongfully convicted in series of fatal IRA bombings in England.
After Saoirse’s death, Lily reportedly said, “We’re in deep shock. She was a lovely girl. I don’t know how Paul and Courtney are going to cope with it.”
Saoirse was 8 when she met some of her Kennedy cousins for the first time, on Cape Cod.
In his eulogy, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. fondly recalled his kids meeting Saoirse, whom he described as “an adorable, flaxen-haired Irish sprite, with sparkling eyes, peeling laughter and a thick brogue.”
“Saoirse’s heart was on the sea,” he said. “She considered herself a citizen of Ireland and America, but most of all, the borderless, boundless oceans.”
A nod to her heritage was included in the programs at her memorial, which included a reworked version of the traditional Irish song “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”
Along with a smiling photo of her bobbing in the water, Saoirse’s name — which means “freedom” in Gaelic — was substituted into the song’s lyrics.