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Boston to Belfast: A Kennedy love story

RFK’s daughter Courtney and Paul Hill shake off the shackles of the past

Courtney Kennedy and Paul Hill posed for a photo in Cambridge in September 1993.Globe Staff/File

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Sept. 29, 1993, editions of The Boston Globe

The London tabloids had a field day.


Nice for the headline writers, all those initials. RFK. IRA. Nice for the right-wing Brits, too, for whom kicking a Kennedy is as sweet as strawberries and cream at Wimbledon.

Of course, it wasn’t true. Oh, Courtney Kennedy, Bobby and Ethel’s daughter, is a Kennedy, all right. But Paul Hill is no IRA man. Never was. Never will be.

Paul Hill served 15 years in prison for an Irish Republican Army bombing in which an appeals court ruled he played no part. His crime was being a working-class nationalist from Northern Ireland living in England at the peak of the IRA’s bombing campaign there.


Courtney Kennedy served her own time. A murdered father, an unhappy youth, a private person in a most public family.

When they married in June, on a ship in the Aegean Sea, it caught much of the world by surprise. They were, it seemed, the oddest of couples. She, a member of one of the richest, most powerful Irish-American families, a product of the best schools; he, a high school dropout from West Belfast who spent nearly all of his adult life in prison.

“We’re opposites,” she acknowledges, “but we’re very much alike.”

Hill nods. “Everyone says we’re opposites, but look at us as individuals, and remove everything else,” he says. “She lost her youth, and so did I. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do. And we’re going to do it together.”

Courtney Kennedy Hill does not do interviews. She makes it clear, early on, why she is doing this one, the only one the couple has granted since their wedding.

“I’d like to correct some of the absurd things that have been printed and said about us,” she says.


The ruling four years ago by the British court of appeals that threw out Hill’s conviction in a series of 1974 pub bombings that killed seven people also raised serious doubts about Hill’s conviction for an unrelated murder in Belfast.

Hill has maintained all along that his confession to being involved in the murder of Brian Shaw, a former British soldier shot in Belfast by the IRA, was coerced out of him by abusive police interrogators after Hill was arrested for the bombings of two pubs in Guildford, England, that killed five people and injured 65, and another pub bombing in Woolwich that killed two others.

The appeal that led to the release of Hill and three other Irish people known as the Guildford Four focused on the pub bombings. His appeal of the Shaw murder will be heard sometime next year.

Despite the legal vindication, both Hill and his wife have learned that once one is branded a terrorist, the label is impossible to completely shed. The court of public opinion, they have found, does not render decisions based on the facts.

The animosity of the Fleet Street tabloids, where anti-Irish bigotry is common currency, was predictable. What bothered the newlyweds even more was the reaction of the respectable mainstream press and, eventually, even their friends.

It actually began before their marriage. The Boston Globe, a newspaper long considered friendly toward the Kennedy family, printed an item in 1991 about the couple’s relationship under a headline that said, “A Dangerous Liaison?” It called Hill an “Irish Republican Army figure.”


Here is how The New York Times related the news of their wedding: “Mary Courtney Kennedy, 36, the fifth of Robert F. Kennedy’s 11 children, has married Paul Michael Hill, 38, who is free on bail while appealing his conviction in the murder of a British soldier.”

Courtney couldn’t believe it. Instead of identifying her husband as someone who had been framed, the nation’s paper of record focused on a tainted conviction that was the product of a completely discredited conviction.

Courtney was appalled when acquaintances and sometimes even friends would approach her or Hill with smirks or mischievous grins. What, they would ask, is it like to be in the IRA? What’s it like to kill someone?

“There were people in my own circles who read that stuff and believed it,” says Courtney. “I can’t believe that they would go out with me and Paul if they believed it. And I can’t believe they think I would be with someone who did something like that, given what’s happened to my family.”

The final straw was a Time magazine account of their wedding that termed Hill an “IRA sympathizer.” The couple and their families had ignored the other stories. This time, Ethel Kennedy fired off an indignant letter.

“Paul Hill spent almost 15 years in prison convicted on evidence the British government admits was trumped up and by a confession which was extracted from him by beating and holding a gun to his head,” Ethel Kennedy wrote. “He served his time in Britain alongside other Northern Irish and members of the Irish Republican Army. That does not make Paul Hill an ‘Irish Republican Army sympathizer’ as described in your Milestones column of July 12, recording the marriage of Hill to my daughter, Courtney. A human rights activist, he has consistently and publicly condemned the methods and violence of the IRA.”


Paul Hill smiles when reminded of how his mother-in-law stuck up for him.

“She’s quite a lady,” he says. “I wouldn’t want her mad at me.”

Paul Hill grew up off Falls Road in nationalist West Belfast. His father, a merchant seaman, was a Protestant, his mother a Catholic.

Hill was the oldest of five children. One of his grandfathers was a British soldier, a captive of the Japanese during World War II. Hill’s father also joined the Crown forces, from which he was honorably discharged after being hurt in Korea.

Hill did not get along with his father. Hill announced one day that he could no longer live at home and that from now on and forever more he would live around the corner with his maternal grandparents, Margaret and Charles Cushnahan.

At the time, Paul Hill was 7 years old.

He remained close to his mother, Lilly, making a point of seeing her every day.

As a child, Hill was one of the iron-lunged paperboys who sold the Belfast Telegraph by walking through pubs, jumping on and off buses, chanting the word ‘‘Telly” as if it were a mantra, with a resonance and tone that made them seem three times their age.


Early in the evening of Nov. 23, 1963, Hill was hawking Telegraphs on the Falls Road when he noticed something was not right. Adults kept stopping one another on the street, with purpose, exchanging hushed words, then stunned stares. Women were crying, openly. A man ran up to Hill and ripped a paper

from his hand. The man scanned the front page in a panic, then the next page, and the next one.

“It’s not there. It’s not there,” the man said, before wandering off.

John F. Kennedy had died too late to make the city edition of the Belfast Telegraph, but in West Belfast, word of his death spread quickly. Hill wondered just who the hell was John F. Kennedy.

“Being a 9-year-old, I couldn’t conceive that this person had touched so many people 3,000 miles away,” Hill remembers.

Not long after that, Hill was with his mother in a small shop that sold odds and ends. He saw his mother and the shopkeeper engage in a long conversation, which ended when his mother explained she had to go home to get more money. After they had returned home, Hill’s mother handed him some money, instructing him to return to the store and give the money to the shopkeeper. Hill did as he was told and was handed a framed picture. Outside, on the sidewalk, Hill studied the photograph. It was of a small boy, much younger than he. The boy was dressed in a warm coat, but his legs were bare. The boy was wearing shorts. The boy was saluting. The boy was John F. Kennedy Jr., and Paul Hill would marry the boy’s cousin 30 years later.

When Bobby Kennedy got shot, this time the Telegraph had the story. Hill remembers it well. “Two brothers? I just couldn’t believe it.” It was an omen, perhaps, because Northern Ireland was about to be torn apart, and the phenomenon of two brothers in one family dying was to become common in Paul Hill’s neighborhood.

Just about a year after Bobby Kennedy’s murder, British troops landed in Northern Ireland, initially to keep the locals away from one another’s throats. Soon, however, they became targets themselves, no longer viewed as impartial peacekeepers but as hostile outsiders by the very people Paul Hill called friends and neighbors.

Hill disliked school, finding it claustrophobic. He dropped out at age 15. At the time, Northern Ireland was in a state of virtual civil war. It was hard to convince a kid living in the middle of the war zone that he needed to stay in school.

Hill wanted out. He began going back and forth to England, finding temporary work carrying bricks at building sites. Although he considered

himself Irish, he found London strangely liberating.

“I could get a job, make a few bob,” he says. “No one asked me my religion, my politics. I wasn’t getting stopped and messed about by the police. It was great.”

While growing up, Hill saw more and more of his mates either leave Ireland or join the IRA. He, however, never joined the IRA, although he admits, “I was involved in civil disobedience,” a polite term for the stone throwing that nationalist youths engaged in with police and soldiers.

“People ask me, ‘Why didn’t you join the IRA?’ Well, I just didn’t. That’s all.”

Hill says he did not make a conscious decision to leave Belfast so that he would not get caught up in the IRA. But he does say, “If I didn’t get out of Belfast, I probably would have ended up in prison.”

In an ironic twist of fate, however, it was Hill’s getting out of Belfast that facilitated his landing in prison.

On Oct. 5, 1974, Hill was sleeping in an Irish lodging house in North London when IRA bombs destroyed two pubs in Guildford and another in Woolwich. As someone from nationalist West Belfast, however, Hill, and others with similar backgrounds, became immediate suspects. Because of the IRA atrocities, anti-Irish sentiment was widespread in England. Many British people, and certainly the authorities, complained that the Irish community in Britain was sheltering the IRA. The revulsion generated by the attacks that killed innocent civilians led police to dispense with such formalities as civil rights.

In December 1974, a few weeks after IRA bombs killed 19 people in two Birmingham pubs, an Irishman named Patrick Armstrong was arrested by police and charged with the Guildford and Woolwich bombings. He named Hill and two other people as accomplices.

Armstrong later said his confession had been coerced by police who employed psychological and physical abuse. Hill got the same treatment when he was taken into custody. For two days, he was kept naked as police interrogated him. He broke down and named Armstrong and two others whom detectives insisted had done it with him.

Hill was convicted of taking part in the bombings, the Shaw murder was tacked on and he was sentenced to life in prison. He was 20 years old.

There were immediate questions raised about the convictions. It became common knowledge among Irish expatriates living in England that the police got the wrong people. But the authorities refused to re-examine the case. The

memories of the dead closed minds. An appeal was denied in 1977.

Hill began reading. He wouldn’t read pulp novels, like most other prisoners. Everything he read was political. He loved Steinbeck. Hill became politicized, with a distinct tilt to the left. He started viewing everything that happened to him, from his birth to his lot in life, as being political — a journey not fated, but mostly predetermined. Something that could be altered, but often was not.

“English kids in ghettos, they join the British army because it’s a job. It’s the only way out they see. It’s the same thing with kids in West Belfast and the IRA. These kids, they’re all a product of their environment.”

A broad-based campaign in Britain and Ireland was eventually mounted on behalf of the Guildford Four. Among their supporters were Cardinal Basil Hume, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Britain, Dr. Robert Runcie, the archbishop of Canterbury, two former British cabinet ministers and two high- ranking English judges. Eventually, an appeals court ruled in 1989 that three Surrey detectives manufactured the confessions to fit the evidence and lied about the methods they used to obtain them.

In a dramatic scene, three of the Guildford Four streamed out into the street in front of the Old Bailey, cheered by their supporters, free at last. Conspicuous in his absence, however, was Hill. He had been bundled onto a Royal Air Force jet and whisked back to Belfast because of the Shaw murder.

Hill and his lawyers say the authorities in Belfast offered him a deal. He would be granted immediate parole, on the grounds that he had already served 15 years, if he signed a document admitting responsibility for the Shaw murder. Hill refused.

“That would entail me accepting guilt,” he says. “I’ll never accept that.”

Instead, he vowed to fight the conviction, and was released after posting a relatively small bail of approximately $6,000.

Hill immediately immersed himself in working for the release of the Birmingham Six, six Irishmen who served a similar sentence for the Birmingham pub bombings, based on similarly discredited evidence. When the Birmingham Six were released, Hill walked out of the Old Bailey with them, belatedly hearing the cheers of freedom.

Hill, who wrote a book, “Stolen Years,” about his experiences, believes the cases against him and others like him were orchestrated by the British intelligence services as part of a covert war against the IRA.

“Basically, it was all aimed at getting the Irish people to abandon the IRA. It was just that cynical. What happened to me wasn’t a miscarriage of justice; it was an abortion.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, Courtney Kennedy had her own problems.

“I was 11 when my dad was killed. I did not react well,” she says. “I wasn’t rebellious, like the boys. I just kept things in. I was unhappy.”

By the age of 12, while most of her friends were worrying about acne, Courtney had an ulcer. She did not like school.

She had spent her childhood at Hickory Hill, the Kennedy home in suburban Virginia, just outside Washington. After an elementary education taught by the Sisters of Sacred Heart, she came to live in Boston. There were no nuns at Milton Academy. And no one she knew.

“I was 15. It was very hard, coming here at that age and not knowing anyone,” she says.

After high school, she moved to Cambridge and was a teacher’s assistant at the Park School. She later taught in a nursery school in California, where she felt like a fish out of water.

Then, by chance, she got roped into accompanying her sister, Kerry, who had just graduated from high school, on a tour of Europe. “Basically, Mummy wanted someone to go with Kerry, and it was me,” she says.

The two sisters first set down in Ireland. Courtney remembers a strange sensation.

“I felt like I was home,” she says. “It’s hard to describe. It’s like that feeling when you walk into some place and think, ‘Hmmm, this is comfortable. This is right.’ “

The sisters rearranged their tour so they could go back to Ireland. Courtney came home briefly, energized by what she had experienced, and soon enrolled in Trinity College in Dublin.

“It was a brief experience. I loved Ireland, but I was not a good student,” she says candidly.

She moved back to New York, a city whose energy she fed off of. In 1980, she married Jeffrey Ruhe, a television executive, and tried the domestic life of a Manhattan sophisticate. She kept busy, working for the foundation that bears her father’s name, and became a chief fund-raiser for her big brother, Joe, the congressman, who shared her deep, abiding interest in anything Irish.

US Rep. Joe Kennedy had been one of the Guildford Four’s most outspoken supporters in Congress. In April 1990, he arranged for Hill and another of the Guildford Four, Gerry Conlon, to visit Washington to address the congressional Human Rights Caucus. Ethel Kennedy attended the hearing and was impressed by Hill. She approached him afterward, saying she wished her daughter, Courtney, had been able to attend, because Courtney was interested in Ireland. Courtney, Ethel Kennedy explained, had broken a bone in her neck in a skiing accident and was laid up in New York.

Then, Ethel Kennedy, acting with the impulse of a mother, not a matchmaker, asked if Hill was by chance going to be in New York.

“Well, as a matter of fact . . .,” Hill began.

Ethel Kennedy handed him the address before he knew what had hit him.

“It’s hard,” he says, “to ignore Ethel Kennedy.”

Courtney was in pain, a bit spaced out on painkillers. She was about as thrilled to have a stranger visit her as Hill was to be that stranger.

“Considering that I just got out of prison, the last place I wanted to be was an apartment on Fifth Avenue, when every bar in Manhattan beckoned,” Hill says.

Courtney heard violins when he walked in the door — and immediately regretted having invited friends over for lunch.

“I couldn’t understand a word he said,” she recalled, hearing a Belfast accent delivered with such rapidity. “But I thought, ‘He’s gorgeous.’ ”

Hill’s first impression wasn’t as romantic.

“I thought she struck a rather pathetic figure. All these flowers she was getting. It looked like a wake.”

Hill insists he was not intimidated by entering a Kennedy lair, or any lair, for that matter. “I’m not fazed by celebrity,” he says.

That night, Hill addressed a law society, dismantling the legal system that held him and others on tainted evidence. Courtney, who attended the lecture, was smitten.

“I wasn’t expecting this. I don’t know exactly what kind of picture I had of someone who had spent 15 years in prison. But it wasn’t Paul. I had heard of him. I had read about his case. But I had never seen a picture of him. I didn’t expect him to be handsome. I expected someone shriveled up, physically and mentally. When I heard him speak, I was really taken by him. He seemed to have this energy, and this integrity.”

The next night, they went out to dinner. Hill admits he felt something. Courtney laughed at the same things he did. They both had, as he puts it, a sick, black sense of humor, something indigenous to Hill’s hometown. And they both enjoyed cigarettes, unlike the yuppies who constantly asked them to put them out.

Courtney was miserable when she realized Hill was going back to London. She hadn’t given any hint of her infatuation. “I called a friend. I was heartbroken. What do you do in that situation?”

She decided to write him. Hill wrote back. A correspondence developed. Courtney went to London to visit him. The relationship simply flourished over time.

Initially, they were reluctant to rush into marriage. Both had had marriages that did not work out. Courtney winced when remembering her days as a Manhattan housewife.

“I wasn’t comfortable with that,” she says. “I’m comfortable with Paul Hill.”

The wedding, so far away, at sea, was done purposely to avoid a media circus. The couple especially feared the British gutter press. Bob Healy, a retired Globe columnist, gave away the bride. Ethel Kennedy beamed.

For their honeymoon, they rented a house on a hill in Doolin, a tiny village in County Clare that is the mecca of Irish traditional music. They spent seven weeks there, mostly under threatening skies.

“We had two sunny days in two months,” says Courtney.

“And when the sun came out,” says Hill, “the local farmers complained, saying it wasn’t raining enough.”

The highlight of their honeymoon was Friday the 13th of August, Hill’s 39th birthday. The party started at about 8 that night. It ended the next morning, just before 6. About 40 people partook, including a delegation of cousins from the Kennedy ancestral home in Wexford. Some of the best traditional musicians dropped by. The newlyweds were serenaded by Miko Russell, who is to the tin whistle what Pablo Casals was to the cello. Courtney’s aunt, Jean Kennedy Smith, visited them shortly after taking up her post as the US Ambassador to Ireland.

As idyllic as their honeymoon was, Courtney says, she wished two other people had been there.

“Our one regret is that I never got a chance to meet his grandfather, and Paul never got to meet my dad. Because those are the two men who shaped our lives so much.”

They have been here in Boston for the past month, finalizing plans to set up house in New York City. They intend to work together on human rights issues, including an Amnesty International project aimed at helping former political prisoners.

The appeal of the Shaw murder looms.

Hill could take the easy way out. The parole offer, he says, remains on the table. He is financially secure now. He is married to a Kennedy. But he will not take the easy way. He will not take the parole offer. He will seek a complete vindication.

What seems to bother some people is that Paul Hill does not use his celebrity to stand on soapboxes and denounce the IRA. For him, someone whose friends and neighbors joined the IRA, it is not so simple. He sees the IRA as a symptom, not the cause, of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Besides, he says, condemnation changes nothing.

Hill does not defend the IRA’s tactics but says he understands what could lead some to join the IRA. For that position, he is smeared, and whispered about, and thought by some to be guilty of the very things a court has said explicitly he is not.

Hill laughs off the articles that emphasize the court case he must still face.

“The only bad press,” he says, flashing that Belfast black humor, “is an obituary.”

Hill appears genuinely blase about what people think of him.

“It’s that ‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire’ thing. A lot of people will say, ‘Well, why was he charged with this and that? There must be something to it.’ Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world might think I’m guilty. I know I’m innocent.”

Courtney Kennedy is nodding her head, looking at her husband.

“I know, too,” she says.