Dynasty Of Grief And Greatness
The Australian Women's Weekly|October 2019
The tragic death of Saoirse Kennedy Hill has once again raised the spectre of a Kennedy curse. William Langley examines the lives and deaths of a family whose heartbreaks and triumphs have become legend around the world.

On the evening of Friday, August 2, some 30 members of the Kennedy family gathered around a firepit in the grounds of their famous compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. On the Saturday and Sunday they sailed and swam in the blue waters off Cape Cod, and on the Monday they went to a funeral.

Saoirse Kennedy Hill was just 22, beautiful, blonde, idealistic, and like so many of her family, destined to die young. She was the granddaughter of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, himself killed by an assassin at the age of 42, and a favourite of RFK’s 91-year-old widow, Ethel, the current Kennedy matriarch, in whose beachfront house she was staying. On the morning of August 1, Saoirse, having failed to appear for breakfast, was discovered dead in her bedroom from an apparent drug overdose.

Every new tragedy to befall the Kennedys revives talk of the “curse” that supposedly stalks them, feeding the fascination they attract, and raising questions about the very public, but perilous nature of their lives. In their extraordinary journey from poor beginnings in Ireland to become America’s unofficial royal family, they have never veered far from scandal, controversy and misfortune.

Beer and ballads around the fire struck many as a peculiar way to mourn, but as long-time Kennedy friend and spokesman Brian O’Connor explained, the family holds dear to its own traditions, and wanted the weekend gathering to reflect the “joy and exuberance” of Saoirse’s short life.

Saoirse (pronounced Sur-sha), means ‘freedom’ in the Irish language, but in a sense, the latest Kennedy casualty was a prisoner of the family name. Her upbringing had been troubled and as it tends to be within the clan, distorted by fame, money and politics. “Like a lot of the younger Kennedys, she had tried to stay out of the public eye,” says J. Randy Taraborrelli, author of The Kennedy Heirs, “but it’s very hard for them to escape the name. When you’ve seen your parents, aunts, uncles have so many problems, the chances are you are going to be affected.”

At Hyannis Port’s Our Lady of Victory church, where generations of Kennedys have been baptised, married and mourned, the congregation sang a specially adapted Irish folk song, When Saoirse’s Eyes are Smiling. Speakers recalled her commitment to social justice and determination to help build a better world, and in a statement, declared: “Our hearts are shattered by the loss of our beloved Saoirse. Her life was filled with hope, promise and love.”

Return to Ireland

Today’s fourth-generation Kennedys are a sprawling dynasty, not quite as rich or politically formidable as they used to be, but still wreathed in an enduring glamour and activism that Saoirse embodied. She was the product of an improbably lopsided marriage between RFK’s 63-year-old daughter, Courtney Kennedy, and Paul Hill, 65, an odd-job man from Belfast, who had served 15 years in prison as one of the ‘Guildford Four’. He was convicted of an IRA bombing of two English pubs, in 1974, before being cleared on the grounds that his “confession” was obtained under duress.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM THE AUSTRALIAN WOMEN'S WEEKLYView All

Role model royals

As we celebrate William and Kate’s 10th wedding anniversary, Juliet Rieden asks: can the close-knit Cambridge five steady the royal ship with their duty, dignity and family values?

10+ mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
April 2021

TOGETHER FOR CHANGE

As allegations of sexual assault and harassment swirl around our federal Parliament, Samantha Trenoweth sits down with some of the most powerful women in the land to consider the issues that have shaken the nation.

10+ mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
April 2021

Remember the time

APRIL 1823: The first Sydney Royal Easter Show

1 min read
The Australian Women's Weekly
April 2021

“Finding my power” -Toni Pearen

Facing her demons (and a few snakes) in the jungle led to a personal and professional renaissance for Toni Pearen. Jenny Brown meets the former pop princess as she steps into a brave new life.

9 mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
April 2021

“I was lost before Lauren”

It may seem a charmed life, but MasterChef Australia judge Jock Zonfrillo has had serious lows with the highs. He tells Sue Smethurst how love saved him.

9 mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
April 2021

Ray of hope

Nobody would consider the parents of children with cancer lucky, but for two families who were included in a ground-breaking Australian program to fight childhood cancers, lucky is exactly how they feel. Genevieve Gannon meets those families.

10+ mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
April 2021

My story: My journey out of darkness

When screenwriter Kristen Dunphy checked herself into a psychiatric ward, her world was unbearably dark, but with pen and paper in hand, she found the glimmer of hope that carried her home.

6 mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
April 2021

In the name of my daughter

When her 20-year-old daughter was brutally murdered in a Queensland hostel, Rosie Ayliffe needed answers. What she uncovered compelled her to launch a campaign to expose the dangers backpackers face in Australia, she tells Juliet Rieden.

10+ mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
April 2021

How to MAX your morning RITUALS

In our quest for the best possible wake-up and start to our day, we need a multisensory approach that draws us out of slumber and kickstarts our body clock. Here, Russell Jones, author of Sense, shares simple ways to feel good.

4 mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
April 2021

Best friends forever

A trip down memory lane makes the perfect birthday gift for a much loved childhood friend.

3 mins read
The Australian Women's Weekly
April 2021