“The gaping hole that she leaves in our family is a wound too large to ever heal,” he wrote.
The family has lots of gaping holes left by young lives cut short — most famously two assassinations, and a plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy 20 years ago last month. With Saoirse’s death, which two sources told the New York Times was an apparent overdose, tragedy has hit her generation.
The public is still fascinated by this dynasty. But what does it mean to be a fourth-generation Kennedy? There are more than 30 great-grandchildren descended from Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and Rose Kennedy, the Boston Globe counted. Most don’t even have Wikipedia pages. The family is so large that it’s possible for members to go unnoticed as a Kennedy until tragedy strikes, gossip erupts or someone runs for office.
The family history of both grief and greatness still hovers over Saoirse and her cousins. But like the hazy images around that firepit, their lives are hard to make out.
Saoirse (pronounced “SIR-shuh”) was born 29 years after her grandfather Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated during his 1968 presidential campaign. Her dad is Paul Hill, an Irishman who was wrongly imprisoned for 15 years after confessing to Irish Republican Army bombings he didn’t commit. He married Courtney Kennedy shortly after his 1993 release, and by the time Saoirse was in elementary school, the family had moved from the United States to a small town in Ireland. “They want Saoirse brought up in an environment that is less manic” than the United States, a reporter wrote in the Scottish newspaper the Herald in 2002.
But the Kennedy legacy and the public mania it inspired waited for her on the other side of the Atlantic.
When Saoirse was 10, on vacation at the same Massachusetts compound where she died, she told a neighbor that two men in a van had offered her a ride, which she refused without further incident. Within hours, police officers were patrolling Hyannis Port and People magazine had a headline about the “abduction attempt.”
“Like her mother, she tried to stay out of the public eye,” said J. Randy Taraborrelli, who wrote “The Kennedy Heirs,” among several books about the family. But “they can’t escape the name.”
Nor can they seem to escape another aspect of the Kennedy legacy — the repeating cycles of grief, substance issues and mental illness. David Kennedy, son of RFK and one of Saoirse’s uncles, died in 1984 of a drug overdose.
“What I think people don’t know is that the fourth generation has been affected by watching their parents, their aunts and their uncles deal with so much trauma in their lives,” Taraborrelli said. “When your parents are overwhelmingly sad all the time, there’s something that’s obviously going to be passed down to the kids.”
Ted Kennedy spoke of a family curse after Chappaquiddick. He had good reason.
Identifying the cause of mental illness can be complicated — but in her senior year at Deerfield Academy in Western Massachusetts, Saoirse opened up about her struggle with depression, which she said took root in middle school. “Although I was mostly a happy child, I suffered bouts of deep sadness that felt like a heavy boulder on my chest,” Saoirse wrote in an essay for the student newspaper, adding that during these difficult periods she would isolate herself in her room, “pulling away from my relationships and giving up on schoolwork.”
Saoirse describes a time someone she knew and loved “broke serious sexual boundaries with me,” she wrote. “I did the worst thing a victim can do, and I pretended it hadn’t happened. This all became too much, and I attempted to take my own life.”
After that suicide attempt, Saoirse took medical leave, eventually graduating in 2016.
“She’s remembered as being extremely bright and kind,” said David Thiel, assistant head of school for strategy and planning at Deerfield Academy.
“Saoirse was a real hero in our family for having spoken out about these challenges she faced and inviting her peers to also speak out,” Ted’s son Patrick J. Kennedy — a mental health advocate and former congressman — told NBC News.
Saoirse became vice president of College Democrats at Boston College and “found great joy in volunteer work, working alongside indigenous communities to build schools in Mexico,” her aunt Kerry Kennedy posted on Instagram.
As the family has grown larger, members of Saoirse’s generation have become harder for the public to pinpoint. In a 2008 speech at a Barack Obama rally, the then-28-year-old Matt Kennedy joked about the peculiar obscurity of being known as a “Kennedy guy.”
Matt, who would go on to work for the Obama administration, told the crowd that he once disappointed a man who “stood a little perplexed and said, ‘Well darn it, I thought the important Kennedy was coming.’ ”
Matt’s twin brother, Joe Kennedy III, is the most politically successful of his generation — a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts since 2012.
Other Kennedy grandchildren have branched out into a wide set of careers and lifestyles that might describe any other old-money American family — but with a tendency to attract gossip.
There are the partyers and tabloid regulars such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s daughter Kyra Kennedy, whose fashion shoots and nightclub adventures have been chronicled in Harpers Bazaar and the New York Times. Her brother Conor is sometimes described in gossip magazines as a Kennedy second and Taylor Swift’s ex first.
Of John F. Kennedy’s three grandchildren — all by his daughter, Caroline — Rose Schlossberg went into acting while her journalist sister, Tatiana, is on tour promoting an upcoming book on climate change. Both appear reluctant to use the family moniker to promote their work.
But their brother, Jack Schlossberg, is not. During the 2016 election he wrote left-wing op-eds for Politico and The Washington Post, introduced in both as the late president’s grandson.
Other branches of the family have merged with other rich-and-famous clans. Katherine Schwarzenegger is the granddaughter of JFK’s sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and the daughter of Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger. When she introduced herself in her 2010 book, “Rock What You’ve Got,” she didn’t mention her old family name. She did write that her father was the Terminator.
Katherine Schwarzenegger was born in the spotlight. She’s choosing to stay there.
When Schwarzenegger talks about her childhood in interviews, her go-to word is “normal”: “My parents raised the four of us kids to have a very normal upbringing and a normal childhood,” she told People.
Schwarzenegger married actor Chris Pratt in June, further solidifying her Hollywood connections. Her brother Patrick dated Miley Cyrus in 2015, around the same time tabloids reported that her sister, Christina, was romantically linked to Cyrus’s brother.
Two of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s children work in entertainment. Robert “Bobby” Kennedy III is an actor, writer and producer. Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy is a television and stage actor who appeared in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Gossip Girl” and “The Newsroom.” (She’s named after her great-aunt Kathleen Kennedy, JFK’s younger sister, who became a widow at 24 and died in a plane crash at age 28.)
The Kennedy name may be synonymous with affluence, but the family’s net worth has dwindled. According to Newsweek, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. was worth an estimated $400 million when he died in 1969 (or $2.8 billion in 2019 dollars). By 2017, the top 30 members of the Kennedy family were worth an estimated $1.2 billion combined, according to Forbes magazine.
“People think, because I’m a Kennedy, I’m extremely wealthy and don’t flaunt it. Ha!” Maeve Townsend — who is now married and goes by Maeve Kennedy McKean — told Glamour in 2008. “I have a great name, but by the time you get to the fourth generation, the money’s run out. We’re fortunate compared to the average American, but to think I’m a trust fund kid — so not true!”
Townsend, the daughter of former Maryland lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, went on to say that she worked at Bruegger’s Bagels and Dunkin’ Donuts in college — and like many idealistic young people, she questioned how she’d make a career in public service with law school loans to repay. “It’s up to us to find a way to keep doing good while going into our chosen careers,” she said.
Kennedy McKean is now executive director of Georgetown University’s Global Health Initiatives and has publicly accused her uncle, RFK Jr., of spreading misinformation on vaccines.
On Monday, Saoirse’s funeral brought family members from 91-year-old Ethel Kennedy on down to small children, unnamed in photographers’ captions. Saoirse was buried outside a small white church in Hyannis Port, next to her aunt Mary Richardson Kennedy, RFK Jr.’s second wife, who died by suicide in 2012 — another life snapped short in the family tree.
JFK Jr. and Carolyn showed us the right way to be famous for being famous