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Kevin Cullen

Courtney Kennedy and Paul Hill’s enduring agony

Courtney Kennedy Hill and Paul Hill walked along the beach at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port with their daughter, Saoirse, after hearing news that John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane was missing.
Courtney Kennedy Hill and Paul Hill walked along the beach at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port with their daughter, Saoirse, after hearing news that John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane was missing.Globe Photo/File

Parents typically struggle to name their first born.

There are pressures from family, a dropped hint to name the kid after grandma or grandpa. Or maybe the urge to try something exotic, like those celebrities with more money than sense who name their kids after fruit or farflung cities.

But when Courtney Kennedy and Paul Hill had their daughter, there wasn’t much debate: Saoirse.

In the Irish language, Saoirse means freedom.

Saoirse Kennedy Hill and I traded e-mails last year, when she was a sophomore at Boston College, but we never met. I knew her parents, Courtney and Paul, fairly well in the early 1990s when they were newlyweds.

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Although based in Boston, I spent a lot of time on the ground in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s and had written about the miscarriage of justice that landed Paul and others in prison, so they felt comfortable talking to me about their relationship, to counteract the malicious gossip written about them in American and British tabloids.

Knowing what Paul and Courtney endured in their personal lives, knowing what they overcame to have a relationship, and knowing just how much they loved their daughter makes Saoirse’s death on Thursday, at just 22, seem even more cruel.

Though their marriage didn’t last, Paul and Courtney found in each other a freedom they did not have before they met. From their families, from their troubled pasts, from the compromising gaze of a cottage industry that follows Kennedys around relentlessly, like a rabid, hungry wolf.

Saoirse embodied that freedom. She took on all the promise — and the pain — of two tortured souls who found in each other, if only for a time, a kind of settled happiness that had eluded them in their youth.

When Courtney and Paul became a couple and later married, there were some breathless accounts of their relationship. The coverage hinted at scandal, particularly because of Paul’s past. Paul and Courtney agreed to talk to me at length. In 1993, they sat for a series of long interviews, candidly talking about their love for each other and how their relationship had helped each recover from a tortured youth — in Paul’s case, literal torture, at the hands of brutal English police officers and prison guards. Ethel Kennedy, Courtney’s mother, talked to me at the time, too.

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RELATED: For Kennedy grandchildren, family name is a burden and a blessing

It was a calculated effort to put to bed the scandal mongering of the tabloids, which shamelessly referred to Paul as a killer and a bomber, when he was in fact innocent. In addition to the piece in the Globe, I also wrote a lengthy magazine story about them for the Independent, a newspaper in London. I rarely interacted with them after those interviews, except for a memorable couple of days in Washington at a conference on Northern Ireland and the occasional chance meeting over the years.

One day about 20 years ago, Paul and I bumped into each other and he whipped out a photo of a then-baby Saoirse. She was gorgeous, and Paul was absolutely delighted, the new-dad smile plastered across his face. Over the years, he’d send me the occasional e-mail, proudly noting Saoirse was a studious girl at Deerfield Academy. He was chuffed when she got into Boston College. Whenever Paul mentioned Saoirse in his e-mails, I remembered that proud new-papa face when he showed me her baby picture.

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Courtney was just a child when her father, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated in Los Angeles in 1968 while campaigning for the presidency. She struggled as a teenager.

“In some ways,” she told me in 1993, after she and Paul got married, “I never had a childhood.”

Some people looked askance when they married, whispering about Paul’s past, not having a clue he was the victim of a false accusation. Courtney took human-rights issues seriously, and she wanted people to know the truth about her husband. Their mutual interest in exposing human-rights violations in Ireland and beyond was a huge factor in their relationship.

“We’re opposites,” Courtney acknowledged, “but we’re very much alike.”

Paul agreed, and what he said back then seemed to sum up, poignantly in hindsight, their mutual attraction and the inevitable pressures on their marriage.

“She lost her youth,” he said, “and so did I. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

RELATED: Death of RFK’s granddaughter is latest burden for Kennedys

Paul grew up in Northern Ireland, which started spiraling out of control the same year Bobby Kennedy was murdered. He left Belfast for England as a teenager, hoping to avoid the Troubles. But he ended up spending 15 years in prison after he was framed for an Irish Republican Army bombing in Guildford, England, that he had nothing to do with. He was guilty only of being an Irish Catholic from Belfast living in England at a time when the Irish were collectively held responsible for IRA atrocities. He was just a kid himself — 20 years old — when police stripped him naked and beat him until he falsely confessed to taking part in the bombing.

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Hill and Kennedy in 1993.
Hill and Kennedy in 1993.Globe Staff/File

In Paul, Courtney found a rakish, lovable Irish rogue, a man who had been to the depths of hell and made it back with his wicked black Belfast sense of humor and fatalism intact. Paul remained tortured in some ways, a legacy of the literal torture he endured after his arrest and imprisonment.

In his life with Courtney, Paul was suddenly a celebrity, thrust onto the pinnacle of the Irish diaspora: the Kennedy family, and all the good and bad that comes with it. The money and lifestyle were great. The unrelenting glare of sometimes prurient publicity was unnerving and ultimately cancerous.

They were determined to keep Saoirse from that glare. And for the most part, they succeeded. According to those who knew her, Saoirse Kennedy Hill was a smart, loving, lovely, empathetic girl.

But she had her struggles, too, with depression.

And now she’s gone. And I am sitting here, trying to make sense of these three lives, bitten and stung by life’s arbitrary cruelty, in ways almost unimaginable.

RELATED: Once again the Kennedys mourn, and Cape Codders mourn with them

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And I have to ask, in all sincerity: My God, when it comes to the Kennedys and Irish tragedy, when will it end?

The received wisdom about Paul going from convicted murderer to celebrated human-rights activist and New York socialite was that Joe Kennedy, then a congressman, fixed him up with little sister Courtney. But it was way more complicated than that.

Patrick Kennedy left Ireland in 1848 to escape starvation brought on by the potato blight and British indifference. In 1960, his great-grandson was elected president of the United States, a rags-to-riches odyssey that to this day helps fuel an international fascination with all things Kennedy.

Through it all, the Kennedys, both personally and politically, retained a strong link to the old country. As JFK put it when he visited Ireland shortly before his assassination, “This is not the land of my birth, but it is the land for which I hold the greatest affection.”

On Capitol Hill, Joe Kennedy was a passionate voice on Irish issues, a champion of civil rights in Northern Ireland, even more outspoken than his uncle, Senator Edward Kennedy, the most influential American politician when it came to Ireland, north and south. Joe Kennedy criticized the IRA campaign of violence and the British government’s heavy-handed response to it with equal vigor.

Paul had an affinity and an affection for the Kennedys even before he met any of them.

“They’re haves that give a damn about have-nots,” he told me years ago.

Joe Kennedy and Paul became fast friends in the late 1980s, when the congressman championed the cause of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, Irish people framed for and ultimately vindicated of IRA pub bombings in England, visiting them in prison. In April 1990, not long after the Guildford Four were released, Joe Kennedy invited Paul and Gerry Conlon, another Belfast man falsely imprisoned, to testify before a congressional hearing on human rights. Ethel Kennedy was in the audience, and was especially taken by Hill’s presentation.

“What he said, and how he said it, was very powerful,” Ethel Kennedy told me in 1993.

Ethel Kennedy is a very direct person, so she walked up to Paul and introduced herself, saying she wished that her daughter Courtney had been able to attend. But Courtney had hurt her neck skiing and was laid up in her Manhattan apartment.

Before Paul knew what hit him, Ethel Kennedy had slipped him Courtney’s address, urging him to visit the next time he was in New York.

As Paul told me, “It’s hard to ignore Ethel Kennedy.”

So he took himself to New York. But as he was punching the buttons for the elevator to her Fifth Avenue apartment, Paul was furious at himself. He had been in prison for 15 years, and now free drink and adoring women awaited him at any number of Irish pubs, from the Bronx to Queens. And here he was, going to lunch with an injured rich girl he didn’t even know.

Courtney couldn’t understand a word he said, so thick was Paul’s Belfast accent. But the long hair, the easy laugh, the I-don’t-give-a-flying-you-know-what attitude left her smitten.

Paul’s initial reaction was not nearly as romantic. He told me that Courtney looked pathetic in her neck brace and that there were so many flowers in her apartment it felt like being at a wake.

RELATED: What we know about Saoirse Kennedy Hill

His opinion changed, dramatically, the next night during dinner at a Manhattan restaurant, when he realized they both had a dark sense of humor. Courtney has an intuitive appreciation of profane absurdity; she is also wickedly funny. That’s what sealed the deal. They became a couple.

“If you can’t laugh together,” Paul told me, “what’s the point?”

Courtney worried about exposing Paul to the circus that is being a Kennedy. Paul reassured her he could take it.

“I’m not fazed by celebrity,” Paul told me. “Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen are the only two people I’d go out of my way to meet. And maybe Neil Young.”

When he was in prison, Paul listened to a lot of Leonard Cohen. People in the Manhattan cocktail party smart set found that odd and amusing.

“People tell me, ‘Oh, but he’s a manic depressive.’ And I say, ‘I was in prison for 15 years for something I didn’t do. I wasn’t exactly on holiday.’ ”

Paul grew up just off the Falls Road, the main thoroughfare in working-class West Belfast. His father was a Protestant, his mother a Catholic. Paul was the eldest of five children. His grandfather was a British soldier who had endured hardship as a prisoner of the Japanese during the Second World War. His father served in the Royal Navy.

Paul didn’t get along with his father. One day, when he was 7, he announced he was moving in with his grandparents, around the corner, and he wasn’t coming back. He kept his word.

He remained close to his mother, Lily, and made a point of visiting her every day.

At 9 years old in 1963, Paul was one of the rough and tumble paper boys who sold the Belfast Telegraph by walking through pubs, jumping on and off buses, chanting “Telly, Telly, Telly.”

In the evening of Nov. 22, 1963, as he was hawking papers on the Falls Road, Paul noticed adults were stopping one another, exchanging frantic words, horrified stares, and emotional embraces. Women were crying openly. A man raced up to him, pulled a newspaper from his grip, scanned the front page, and cried, “It’s not there! It’s not there!”

John F. Kennedy was shot and killed after that day’s late edition of the Belfast Telegraph.

Days later, Paul’s mother sent him to pick up something at a store in West Belfast. The shopkeeper handed him a photograph — of 3-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr., wearing a heavy wool coat, his legs bare in the Washington chill, saluting the casket of his murdered father.

Thirty years later, Paul married that boy’s cousin. But six years after he toasted Paul and Courtney’s marriage, John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, and his sister-in-law died when the plane he was piloting crashed off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard.

A year after Bobby Kennedy was murdered, civil unrest spread throughout Northern Ireland to the point that British troops were deployed to Belfast and beyond. They quickly took sides, bolstering the Protestant unionist hegemony that openly discriminated against Catholic nationalists. A lot of the boys Paul grew up with joined the IRA and hit back.

Paul was a nationalist but didn’t believe in violence. He decided to go to England to avoid the troubles. But in 1974, after the IRA blew up two pubs in Guildford, killing four off-duty soldiers and a civilian, the Troubles came to him, in the form of police officers who stitched him up for murder.

Meanwhile, Courtney was just 11 years old when her father was murdered.

“I did not react well,” she told me in 1993. “I wasn’t rebellious, like the boys. I just kept things in. I was unhappy.”

By the time she was 12, while most of her friends were worried about acne, Courtneyhad an ulcer. She hated school. She had spent her childhood at Hickory Hill, the Kennedy home in suburban Virginia, just outside Washington. She was taught by nuns in elementary school, then came to Boston to go to Milton Academy.

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

After high school, she moved to Cambridge and was a teacher’s assistant at the Park School in Brookline. She later taught at a nursery school in California, feeling completely inadequate at it.

Then her mother roped her into accompanying her younger sister Kerry, who had just graduated from high school, on a tour of Europe.

“Basically, mummy wanted someone to go with Kerry,” she said, “and it was me.”

When Courtney and Kerry arrived in Ireland, Courtney literally felt something inside.

“I felt like I was home,” she said. “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.’ ”

Like her uncle, the murdered president, she discovered a latent, profound love for the land of her forebears. She lived in Dublin, studying at Trinity College. Later, in 1980, she came home and got married to a television executive. It didn’t work out. She didn’t like being a Manhattan housewife.

But then, in 1990, just a year out of prison, Paul showed up at her Manhattan doorstep.

Saoirse (left) placed a rose at the Eternal Flame, President John F. Kennedy’s gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery, in 2000.
Saoirse (left) placed a rose at the Eternal Flame, President John F. Kennedy’s gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery, in 2000.Associated Press/File/Associated Press

After a three-year courtship, they got married on a yacht in the Aegean Sea. They spent their two-month honeymoon in Ireland, mostly in Doolin, a small village in County Clare near the Cliffs of Moher and a mecca for traditional Irish music.

They were in Doolin, on that long honeymoon, when Paul turned 39. The party started around 8 p.m. and ended just before 6 a.m. About 40 people were there, including a delegation of Kennedy cousins from New Ross, in County Wexford, from where Patrick Kennedy sailed in the 19th century to escape famine and establish the Kennedy family in Boston. They were serenaded by Miko Russell, a farmer and musician who was to the tin whistle what B.B. King was to the guitar. Courtney’s aunt, Jean Kennedy Smith, visited them shortly after taking up her post as US ambassador to Ireland.

Courtney said there were two people she wanted there who weren’t.

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

Paul and Courtney lived in Ireland from 2002 until 2006, when they separated. They passed on their love of Ireland to their daughter, who spent a lot of time there.

Jim Sheridan’s great film, “In the Name of the Father,” based on the Guildford Four case, was a critical and commercial success. The film’s protagonist was not Paul but Gerry Conlon, Paul’s old friend from Belfast who, tragically, died five years ago, at age 60.

Paul was devastated by Gerry’s death. Gerry suffered from terrible post-traumatic stress but had finally found some peace after tumultuous years of drinking and drugging.

And then Gerry was dead. Gone. Just like that. In an instant.

Paul sent me some e-mails after reading a column I wrote about Gerry. Paul desperately wanted Gerry to have more time as a free man, because Paul knew what it was like to be wrongfully denied your freedom. Paul knew what freedom smelled like, what it tasted like, and to Paul, freedom was the compensation that mattered most to the innocent men and women who were framed in the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six cases.

Freedom, what it means, what it carries, was so important to Paul and Courtney that they named their daughter Saoirse. Their marriage didn’t last. But their loving legacy was Saoirse, the beautiful child whose name means freedom.

Like so many in her family, Saoirse Kennedy Hill was born to privilege, but also pain. She wrote movingly about mental illness, about her struggles with depression, when she was a student at Deerfield — at an age when it’s hard enough worrying about peers and dating and clothes and popularity and things that are so pointless compared to being present and settled and content.

She knew pain and she knew stigma and pushed back against both. For such a young person, she wrote with great insight and empathy.

“People talk about cancer freely,” she wrote when she was at Deerfield, “Why is it so difficult to discuss the effects of depression, bi-polar, anxiety or schizophrenic disorders? Just because the illness may not be outwardly visible doesn’t mean the person suffering from it isn’t struggling.”

Saoirse’s struggle ended Thursday, one month before she was to return to Boston College for her senior year. I found an e-mail she sent me last year, after her dad asked me to get her into a panel discussion on Ireland that I was moderating at Boston College. She sent me a sweet note, apologizing for not being able to make the event because she had classes.

Saoirse signed off by writing, “I hope to meet you one day.”

I had hoped so, too. But it didn’t happen.

And so I sit here, feeling horribly sad for Saoirse and her family — for all the people whom Saoirse would have helped had she lived. And I’m remembering the photo Paul pulled out so proudly, that picture of a smiling, gorgeous baby girl, her whole life ahead of her. Paul was beaming and going on and on about Saoirse and freedom, freedom and Saoirse.

And in my head, I hear Janis Joplin, before heroin robbed us of her, singing that sad but terribly true refrain, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.