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From the shadows, Jean Kennedy Smith emerged to make a difference in Ireland

As a most improbable US ambassador to Ireland, Jean Kennedy made incalculable contributions to the process that ended the conflict in Northern Ireland by trusting her gut, and her little brother.

While ambassador to Ireland, Jean Kennedy Smith, joined thousands of demonstrators during a peace rally in Dublin in 1996.
While ambassador to Ireland, Jean Kennedy Smith, joined thousands of demonstrators during a peace rally in Dublin in 1996.Associated Press

Jean Kennedy Smith knew how to throw a hooley.

A hooley is what the Irish call a party, and after she, improbably, became the US ambassador to Ireland, her ability to bring together a disparate group of enemies from Northern Ireland in the grand, private confines of the US ambassador’s residence in Dublin became a largely unknown but significant contribution to the process that brought peace to Northern Ireland.

Smith, who died Wednesday at her home in Manhattan at 92, was the last surviving child of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, the last member of a generation of America’s most prominent political family and, until she was appointed ambassador in 1993, the least well known.

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Despite being a neophyte diplomat and a politician only by osmosis, Smith was well-suited for her Irish posting. Long before she sought to take on Ireland’s ancient tragedy, she had witnessed untold and cumulatively unthinkable tragedy in her own family.

Throughout all that, Smith, who married Kennedy financial adviser Stephen Smith in 1956, remained largely in the background of her famous and star-crossed family. Some say she resented her comparative obscurity, and was forever grateful when her little brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, prevailed upon President Bill Clinton to appoint her ambassador.

Eileen McNamara, a former Globe columnist and biographer of Smith’s sister Eunice Shriver, said it was hard to be the quietest of the many squeaky wheels in the Kennedy clan.

Smith made her own way, largely in charitable works. In her book, “Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World,” McNamara noted that after college, Smith worked for the Rev. James Keller, a Maryknoll priest who founded an organization that worked with the poor. She and her sister Eunice also volunteered at a home for delinquent girls. And in 1974, she founded Very Special Arts, a program to promote those with mental disabilities in the arts that, while lacking the reach of the Special Olympics that Eunice created, found its way to more than 50 countries.

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Smith told Conor O’Clery of The Irish Times that she resented suggestions she was a dilettante.

“They say I did charity work,” she told O’Clery. “If I were a man, they would have said that I ran an international organization.”

She had famous friends: George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, Lauren Bacall, E.L. Doctorow. But, again, she was in their shadow, not the other way around.

That all changed when Clinton made her ambassador to Ireland. She had no experience in diplomacy, and knew little about the complexities of the Troubles, as the Irish in their penchant for understatement called their relatively small but brutal civil war.

What she did have was chutzpah and the Kennedy cachet. She accompanied Jack when he made his triumphant visit to Ireland as president in 1963. Her spirit and family ties went a long way in Ireland, especially with Catholic nationalists, who aspire to unify the six counties of British-controlled Northern Ireland and the 26-county Irish Republic. Protestant loyalists, who want to preserve the union between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, were outraged over her appointment.

So were many Irish-Americans with extensive history and expertise in Ireland who had been jockeying for the position at a pivotal time in Irish history, when the IRA appeared willing to end its war and commit itself to seeking a united Ireland through democratic methods, and as the Clinton administration was poised to inject American diplomacy into ending the conflict. Many resented her getting the post.

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But, then, she had a qualification others lacked. In 1998, she told me the assassination of her brothers had had a profound effect on her outlook.

“When I first came here,” she said, during an interview at the grand Georgian house in the Phoenix Park she called home for five years, “we saw in the news that a woman’s husband had been shot. I said I wanted to stop by and see her. So we did. We just took a long walk, the woman and I, and she told me the story of how it happened. She was extremely brave, and I was very moved. She opened up to me, because I think she saw me as someone who’s been through it.”

Smith eschewed protocol, went with her gut, and always had her brother Ted’s ear, and by extension Clinton’s. Almost immediately, she and Ted began urging Clinton to grant a visa to Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Féin, the IRA’s political wing, so he could visit the United States. The British government, and especially Prime Minister John Major, were vehemently opposed unless and until the IRA renounced violence. But Smith and her brother considered it an essential way to show Irish republicans that there was much to gain if they ended their war.

It worked.

After Adams’s visit, the IRA called a cease-fire in 1994.

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Ted Kennedy later told me Smith convinced him on the wisdom of the visa.

“I listen to my big sister,” he explained, only half-jokingly.

Despite her lack of diplomatic expertise, Smith’s instincts seemed well suited for the moment. Rather than focusing on Ireland’s tragic past, she brought the warring sides together in convivial social situations, so they could get to know each other as human beings instead of labels.

At the time, it would have been virtually impossible for Irish republicans and British loyalists to gather together anywhere in Belfast or even anywhere on the island of Ireland. Their political bases would have accused them of treachery. In what was then a very risky move, Smith summoned the combatants to the ambassador’s residence in the Phoenix Park.

The hooleys were sumptuous, hours-long, booze-soaked dinners held over a long rectangular dining table, where people of differing opinions and purposes were purposely seated next to or near each other. Besides those who took up arms to defend their respective positions and communities, there were historians like Tim Pat Coogan, filmmakers including Neil Jordan, and even clergymen of various denominations.

Some might dismiss such partying as just that. But, having attended several of these events, in an off-the-record capacity as the Globe’s Dublin bureau chief in 1997 and 1998, and after speaking to those from all sides of the conflict who attended the hooleys, it is undeniable they were important building blocks, allowing people of polar opposite political views to share a better understanding of each other, not to mention a better than average Bordeaux.

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Nancy Soderberg, a national security adviser to Clinton and key architect of American policy in Ireland, told me Smith’s hooleys were “a secret weapon” in helping life-long enemies see a different side of each other. Some leading loyalists, Davy Ervine and Billy Hutchinson among them, agreed.

“She believes in dialogue,” Gerry Adams told me in 1998. “In creating the conditions that lead to dialogue.”

For all the claims in the British gutter press that she was anti-British, Smith was keen to reach out to Protestant unionists who wanted to stay part of the UK. When Ireland’s president, Mary McAleese, was criticized by the Catholic hierarchy for taking communion at a Protestant church to show solidarity with unionists, Smith stood alongside her and did the same.

Smith’s tenure in Ireland was not without rancor. She turned the embassy, once a sleepy post for sleepy old men, upside down. She could be churlish, and her staff in Dublin complained about her constantly. She was reprimanded by then US Secretary of State Warren Christopher for retaliating against two of her subordinates who had objected to the Adams visa.

Like her little brother Ted, despite British tabloid jibes, she was hardly soft on the IRA. As someone whose two brothers died at the hands of assassins, she had little truck for those who use murder to advance political views.

When the IRA, frustrated over British foot-dragging on allowing Sinn Féin into peace talks, broke its cease-fire in 1996 with a huge bomb in London that killed two people and caused millions of dollars of damage, Smith called Joe Cahill, the founder of the Provisional IRA, on the carpet. Smith had gone to bat for Cahill, getting him into the US in 1994 to explain the situation to Irish-American supporters and pave the way for the IRA’s cease-fire.

“She let me have it,” Cahill told me, four years later, when he was campaigning for a seat in the new Northern Ireland Assembly. “She was furious.”

In her memoir, “Times to Remember,” Rose Kennedy wrote that of all her children, Smith was the closest to Ted.

“They were a pair,” she wrote, “they trotted around together; she sometimes admonished him and sometimes scrapped with him but mainly was his valiant friend and big sister.”

While some have suggested that Jean Kennedy Smith was driven by some compelling need to finish ancient family business, generations after her great-grandfather Patrick Kennedy fled a famine-ravaged Ireland for America, Smith dismissed all that as psychobabble.

“I was part of the tide,” she told me, days before she left Dublin as ambassador, glancing at a photograph of her brother the murdered president. “I really didn’t think of it as a Kennedy thing. I thought of it as a moment. A moment in history.”


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.