The Origin of the Kennedy Curse (EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is reprinted from Ireland’s Big Issue, one of our sister papers within the International Network of Street Papers. We thought the story is a natural for a Boston audience).
By Tom Prendeville
Ireland’s Big Issue
We’ve all heard of the “Kennedy curse”. Is there an actual curse? Or is it simply a saying coined by the media to describe a series of tragedies caused by reckless choices: driving under the influence and piloting an airplane under unsafe conditions?
The Kennedy family has long been considered the nearest thing America has to royalty, and for half a century the world has been fascinated by the extraordinary glamour, power and tragedy that’s so much part of the Kennedy legend.
The tragedy aspect of America’s Camelot began with the assassination of President JFK in Dallas in 1963. Five years later, his brother, Senator Bobby Kennedy, who was on the cusp of the Democratic presidential nomination, was assassinated in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles at the hands of a lone gunman. Tragedy would strike again when Ted Kennedy – who was widely tipped as a future Democratic president – was involved in an automobile accident in 1969 and crashed off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island into a fast moving river, drowning his secretary. The outcome of that awful event was that Ted Kennedy was blamed for being drunk and abandoning Mary Jo Kopechne in a submerged vehicle and failing to report the accident until the next day. The ensuing scandal forever dashed his hopes of becoming president.
When the lives of JFK’s lesser-known siblings are examined in detail, tragedy was never far away. Joseph Kennedy, a U.S. Air Force pilot, died in a mysterious accident in 1944 when his plane exploded mid-air over England. There was no other aircraft or enemy combatants involved, and the true cause of the accident was never fully resolved.
There were other tragedies before and since; so many in actual fact that historians and biographers have talked about the “Kennedy curse” stalking Camelot.
No one has ever been able to pin down the source of the bad luck apparently blighting the Kennedy’s — until now that is. According to Connemara legend, Thomas Fitzgerald — who was JFK’s great grandfather on his mother Rose’s side — interfered with a cursed treasure trove in the 1840’s and used the proceeds to set himself up in business in America.
The story begins in 1842: a terrible period when the roads of Ireland were clogged with starving refugees and ruthless absentee landowners and their agents, who thought nothing of turning people out onto the road. Nowhere was life more grim than in the tiny village of Ourid in County Galway; a once-thriving place whose name literally means the golden village. In this tiny village, Thomas “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald is said to have made his fortune when he discovered a hoard of treasure.
The modern day village of Ourid is on the edge of Ourid Lake, which is four miles from Maam Cross. Surrounded by mountains and nestling in the center of Connemara in a hilly lake land with scarcely a tree standing, it is hard to imagine a more beautiful place on earth. Home to a handful of Gaelic speakers, Ourid is so remote that it was the last place in Ireland to be electrified, the first light bulb having only arrived in 1980! Amidst the rolling blanket bog, dense clusters of heather and furze bushes grow in abundance around the ruins of old famine-era Ourid. Dotted here and there are the modern homes of the last few remaining inhabitants, who keep the stories of the past a well-guarded secret.
Ourid landowner and farmer, William McGuire, is not so reticent and is keen to tell the extraordinary story of Thomas “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald before it is forgotten forever.
“It really is an extraordinary story,” explains McGuire. “Thomas Fitzgerald, or “Honey Fitz” as he was known, was from Loch Gur, County Limerick. The story is that he dreamt of this vision of gold buried in a place surrounded by mountains and lakes, and on his travels over the years he searched for the place many times. He used to be going to fairs around the country asking about it, to no avail. Then one day at a fair in Galway City he met an O’Malley man at the old bridge spanning the Corrib. They got talking, and Thomas Fitzgerald told him about his vision. Unbeknownst to him, what he was describing was the Maam Turks and the Twelve Bens mountain range. O’Malley was from that part of the country and was a native of Ourid, so he recognized that the place Fitzgerald was describing was Ourid – which means golden village. O’Malley knew the legend of the gold but he did not know where it was buried.”
Intrigued, Thomas “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald later settled in the village of Ourid where he became a travelling herdsman for the local landlords, the St. George Berige family. Once he settled in, he befriended everyone for miles around and set out on a quest to find the treasure, which was quite literally a ‘crock of gold.’ One night in 1838, he and a group of neighbors came upon a dying woman on the road.
William McGuire takes up the story: “They came upon an old travelling woman on the road and she was dying so they put her down by the fire for the night in a herdsman’s house owned by the St. George Berige family landlords — a house which O’Malley subsequently bought when he became rich. When the woman recovered the next morning and awoke, she examined the big black pot hanging in the hearth. It had Ogham writing on it and she could read it and it said, ‘The other side of the tree is just as good.’ To the people of the household it was a cryptic message about the location of Ourid’s crock of gold, but not to Thomas Fitzgerald. He knew all about the ancient pot hanging in the fireside hearth, and more importantly, where it came from: Fitzgerald had found a similar pot already – it was a big black pot for cooking in, so that is how he knew where to dig. The treasure was buried under an old hawthorn tree. Fitzgerald dug around the tree and found a hoard of gold coins and shared it with the O’Malley’s, and it was from the gold that he got the nickname Honey Fitz. However, the gold coins were supposed to be very unlucky, and people were afraid to touch them. However, some did. It was said afterwards that there was terrible bad luck for any family that took the gold; they had terrible misfortune afterwards.”
There is a further twist to the story. The new-found wealth of Fitzgerald, O’Malley and the other neighbors who shared the bounty didn’t last long. It was said that the gold coins brought down terrible luck on the entire village, starting with O’Malley’s wife, who poisoned herself and died.
“There were forty houses before the famine, which were mostly hovels, and a landlord’s house”, says William McGuire. “Then on the night of the Big Wind in 1839, all the houses were blown down. The whole village was later wiped out in the famine and Ourid went from forty houses to one. There are only four houses now, which were built in more recent times. That money took Fitzgerald and several other local people to America and it took all the bad luck out of Ourid, which went with him. That was the story in Ourid. He later became very successful, but they say that the bad luck that followed the Kennedy’s was from that gold.”
As for the origin of the treasure trove, the tradition locally is that it was bounty washed ashore from a sinking ship. “The gold was Spanish and may have come from the Armada. Then again, there are acres of old castles and monasteries in the area which was the heartland of Grainne O’Malley,” explains William McGuire.
When he was a young man, the legend of the gold was imparted to William McGuire by the older people of the district who used to gather in his house every Thursday night without fail for storytelling. “Thursday night was visitors’ night and the old people would come with their stories. They spoke Gaelic and they had all the old history and legends of Connemara. They didn’t read or write so all the stories were passed down by word of mouth in the old tradition. Mind you, they are still spooked about that gold up the hills,” adds William McGuire mysteriously.
The old stories live on undiminished by time and local farmer Johnny Manion recollects what was passed onto him. “I was born in Ourid and I heard the legend growing up from the older people. My father and grandfather also spoke about it from time to time. The crock of gold: that is where they reckon the village got its name. The O’Malleys were one of the people who found the crock of gold and it brought bad luck. Whether it is true or not is very hard to say. The original Ourid inhabitants from the old age are all long gone now and there is only one old house left standing that goes back to the famine time. It is in the village, and it is the O’Malley’s original house. There are only four houses here now and they were built between 1925 and 1930. No gold coins have been found in recent years and nobody knows where the original hawthorn tree is.”
Intriguingly, there were four pots of treasure and only three were ever found. Although all traces of the tree appear to be long gone, the ghostly ruins of Thomas “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald’s house remain. “The ruins of the old Fitzgerald house are on my land, and it looks down onto the lake. The house with the hearth where the old woman read the Ogham writing on the black pot is in the village, and is still standing,” adds William McGuire.
Author Tim Robinson, who wrote “The Map of Connemara,” is familiar with some of the legends of Ourid. “The Ourid pot of gold is buried under a hawthorn tree. The tree is still there, but you would have to ask William McGuire which one. There is quite a lot of folklore about Ourid. There is an old prophecy that the last battle of Christianity would be fought in Ourid. It was recorded by the folklorist Justice John Ford in the 1930’s and will presumably take place in the future.”
As for Thomas “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, he immigrated to Boston in 1850 and married Rosanna Cox. He later became a successful businessman in the fish mongering trade. The couple had an illustrious son, John ‘Honey’ Fitzgerald (1863-1950) who went on to became a Congressman for the State of Massachusetts and a Mayor of Boston. He in turn had a daughter, Rose, who was JFK’s mother. According to Kennedy lore, JFK was inspired to go into politics by his Congressman grandfather.
Tom Prendeville writes for Ireland’s Big Issue, part of the International Network of Street Papers.