Time has flown for PJ Harvey during a life that took him across the world and saw him rub shoulders with one of the most powerful political dynasties in American history, writes Peter O’ Connell
When PJ Harvey left Bealaha in West Clare in 1960, he headed across the Atlantic gripped by sadness and desolation. It was just four days since he had buried his father.
Occasionally during his flight over, the 20-year-old’s thoughts cleared and he ruminated on where he would find work and what he would think of America.
Harvey was following his father’s example. He had lived and worked in the US for seven years, from 1925 to 1932. When he came home for good, with America in the throes of the Great Depression, he was greeted by his wife and seven-year-old son, PJ’s oldest brother, whom he had never seen before.“He worked in the docks; $30 a week for six days, 10 and 12 hours a day. What saved him was he was staying with his sister,” PJ Harvey said, reflecting on his father’s time in the US.
“He was married before he came here. He had a son that he never saw until he went home after seven years. He often told me that he looked down the station platform in West Clare and saw my mother with this curly haired little boy. That was the first time he saw his son,” PJ said.
Still grieving for his father when he landed in the US, possibly the last thing on PJ’s mind was American politics and a family dynasty he had yet to hear of.
Yet a chance meeting was to have a significant influence on the rest of his life.
“I met John F Kennedy in Cincinnati, Ohio when I first arrived in the US,” PJ remembers of his first and only meeting with JFK 49 years ago. “I was visiting my sister in nearby Kentucky and some Democrats took me to where he was speaking, right before he won the presidency from Richard Nixon.”
“When he was finished speaking, he was coming down and they said this is a kid who has just come from Ireland. So I shook hands with him, I’ll never forget it. He had reddish, brown hair.”
While he never met JFK again, PJ Harvey struck up a friendship with Bobby and the recently deceased Senator Ted Kennedy. He also signed on the dotted line for the Democratic party.
“I met Robert F Kennedy in 1964 and was a volunteer in his campaign in New York for the Senate. From ’64 to 1968 I met him numerous times and then I worked on his presidential campaign. I helped set up his headquarters in Madison Avenue, New York until tragedy struck.
“Twenty five years later, I helped to raise funds with Bobby’s son Joe Kennedy and to this day, I have a genuine friendship with him and we here in New York hope that he will replace Ted,” PJ said.
The Kennedys, he feels, helped Irish people gain some badly needed belief in themselves.
“They gave the Irish people here in America their place in the sun. It gave us a great interest in politics. I had no interest in politics at all before that. We all took a tremendous interest because of the Kennedy’s. After that, Irish names were very prominent in companies and the stock market. It just set fire to the whole thing,” he said.
In his father’s time in the US, Irish people found it difficult to establish themselves, PJ maintains.
“Back in the old times when my father was here during the depression, there was signs all over the cities reading, ‘no Irish need apply’. Even in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco. There was very little use for the Irish for whatever reason, I don’t know. Whether it was their behaviour or not, I don’t know. Of course you had the Masons and the WASPS here that time and they didn’t want the Irish. They didn’t want the Irish in positions of power but Kennedy changed all that,” he explained.
With regard to his own life, PJ worked as a carpenter and was very active in the Carpenters Union. He held the position of recording secretary in New York for 11 years and was union president for a term.
He married Kathleen Murray from West Cork and these days he tends to his five grandchildren, raises money for autism and plays as much golf as his artificial hips allow.
“I’d a couple of heart attacks and survived them. I’ve a pacemaker, a defibrillator and two artificial hips. But I’m playing pretty good golf and I can walk 18 holes with a battery buggy,” he laughed.
“I’ll be 70 in March and where the years have gone, I don’t know. They have just gone. My father used always say that if you look ahead, you wonder how the time will pass; you look behind you and wonder where did it go?”
Educated at Bansha National School and for a year of secondary school in Kilkee, before the school closed, PJ eventually obtained a High School Diploma in the US. Politics aside, he has had lifelong interest in GAA and traditional music.
With so many diverse interests, perhaps it’s no wonder he can’t work out how the years have flown so quickly, since that flight to America in 1960.