A NEW book called The Green And White House explores a fascinating connection between American President John F. Kennedy’s great grandmother, Margaret Field, and one of Cork’s most revered revolutionary figures.
It reveals how the farm where she was born in Coorleigh North, around four miles outside Clonakilty in Cork, was about half a mile from the house where Republican leader Michael Collins grew up in the neighbouring townland of Woodfield.
Collins’ father was 75 when Michael was born, the youngest of eight children, and the bachelor farmer was 60 years old when he married the freedom fighter’s 23-year-old mother, Mary Ann O’Brien.
Margaret Field, the mother of Mary Augusta Hickey, who was President Kennedy’s paternal grandmother, was born in 1835 on a tenant farm in the West Cork parish, when her neighbour Michael Collins Snr was around 20 years old - so it’s almost certain he would have met her as a small child and been on familiar terms with her parents.
In fact, Margaret’s Field mother, Mary Sheehy, had come from Woodfield, making it undeniable that their families were known to one another.
Local historian Tim Crowley, who is related to Michael Collins, was intrigued to discover the families of two of the most significant political icons of the 20th century were such close neighbours.
He described how an old lady pointed out the site of JFK’s ancestral homestead to him about 25 years ago. Various land records clearly corroborate the location of the Field farm.
“Margaret Field was born in 1835, her neighbour, literally a mile away, would have been Michael John Collins, Michael Collins’s father, so at the very least they were neighbours. They were just over the ditch. We heard she emigrated during the famine, she would have been only around 12.”
From the records uncovered by Crowley, it appears that Margaret’s father, Patrick, and his brother Francis, worked a plot of 42 acres together, but by 1950 it had been taken over by a neighbour. It is thought the Fields had gone to America by that time.
Crowley believes there is even a possibility there could be a distant blood tie between JFK and Michael Collins.
“There is a recording of Johnny Collins, Michael’s brother, and he reckons that the first Collins to come into Woodfield, several generations before Michael Collins, actually married into a Sheehy farm,” says Crowley. “So, there is a possibility that Kennedy and Collins are distant cousins.”
When he gives tours at the Michael Collins Centre outside Clonakilty, the historian often puts pictures of the two leaders side by side for visitors.
“If I said to you, they were brothers, you would take my word for it, there is a bit of a resemblance.
“They were both charismatic leaders of the 20th century, they both died from shots to the head under controversial circumstances, Collins on August 22, Kennedy on November 22. They were both travelling in open motor cars leading up to the time of their deaths as well. There are a lot of little coincidences. If they were related it would be an amazing bit of history.”
The Green And White House, written by Lynne Kelleher, reveals that Irish leaders had paid 53 visits to the U.S up until the pandemic, from the first visit by Taoiseach John A Costello for St Patricks’ day in 1956, up until Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s visit to Washington in 2020.
Figures from the Office of the Historian at the U.S Department of State relating to visits by foreign leaders up to the outbreak of Covid show this is in stark contrast to countries such as Angola, with just four visits to the U.S by their leaders.
Many other European countries have had much less access when it comes to U.S. visits, with Polish leaders received 32 times, Greece visited 24 times, Spain has had 38 visits, Sweden with 23, while Switzerland has been received just three times.
The figures also reveal major powers like Italy have had 78 visits, France 57 and Germany has had 91, while Britain and Canada had both had more than 100 visits before the pandemic hit.
The Green And White House takes a look at the complex and long-lasting family ties to around half the U.S presidents, with genealogists in the U.S and Ireland estimating 23 of the 46 Commanders-in-Chief in the Oval Office have had blood ties to Ireland.
The links are as strong as parental links in a few cases, but as far back as five or six generations in many cases.
Handwritten letters, weather-worn tombstones, shipping records, and even an old desk are all clues used by family tree experts to unlock the ancestral secrets, from the first Irish American president Andrew Jackson up to President Joe Biden, who is said to be roughly five-eighths Irish.
In the book, one of his recently discovered cousins, rugby legend Rob Kearney, details how he found out that Joe Biden was his distant relative when the then Vice President spent six days in Ireland in the summer of 2016.
A few weeks later, Rob and his brother Dave were invited to the White House, although the Vice President happened to be down in New Zealand and later told the full-back rugby star in a note that he had informed the All Blacks on the visit that he was related to the Kearney brothers. In a speech around this time in New Zealand, Biden also revealed that he had followed the All Blacks on a tour around Ireland when he was a young senator.
The book also delves into the entertaining interactions between the Secret Service and rural Ireland during visits by Richard Nixon, Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, from an Aran cardigan examined as a hostile device, to the agent who dropped his firearm but found it retrieved by a delighted Irish crowd.
It also details how a white flashing phone with its own guard was erected in a field next to a cemetery during Nixon’s 1970 visits to a graveyard in Timahoe, Co. Kildare, to visit his ancestor’s resting place – it was a direct line to the White House.
A young Kildare student, Marian Scully Moore, on a J1 visa in America in the early 1970s, found herself invited for an audience in the Oval Office with President Nixon and Henry Kissinger because the Marine One helicopter carrying President Nixon had landed in her father’s Kildare field a few years earlier.
It is estimated that almost 32 million Americans – around 10% of the population - identified as Irish in the most recent U.S census.
The Green And White House, by Lynne Kelleher. Available now.