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Jean Kennedy Smith, ex-ambassador to Ireland and last surviving sibling of JFK, dies at 92

As ambassador, Jean Kennedy Smith played a role in the Northern Ireland peace process. She helped persuade President Bill Clinton to grant a controversial visa to Gerry Adams.
Jean Kennedy Smith
Jean Kennedy Smith in 1977.Vernon Shibla / The New York Post via Getty Images

Jean Kennedy Smith, a former U.S. ambassador to Ireland and the last surviving sibling of President John F. Kennedy, died Wednesday night in Manhattan, her daughter said. She was 92.

"She lived an amazing life," her daughter Kym Smith told NBC News in a statement Thursday.

Maria Shriver, a contributor for NBC's "TODAY," remembered her aunt as an "extraordinary woman."

Smith "had a great career on behalf of this country as ambassador to Ireland promoting peace there and also started very special arts for people with intellectual disabilities,” Shriver said on the 3rd hour of "TODAY."

“So I take solace in the fact that she is joining every other member of her family up in heaven. So it’s nice for her," she added.

Smith was born on Feb. 20, 1928, in Boston, Massachusetts to Rose and Joseph Kennedy.

She moved to New York City after marrying transportation executive Stephen E. Smith in 1956. He died in 1990.

They had four children together.

Her siblings included older brother Joseph Kennedy Jr., who was killed during World War II; Kathleen Kennedy, who died in a 1948 plane crash; President Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963 and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who was killed in 1968.

Sisters Patricia Kennedy died in 2006 and Rosemary Kennedy in 2005. Sen. Edward Kennedy, the youngest of the Kennedy siblings, died of brain cancer in August 2009, the same month their sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver also died.

Portrait Of The Kennedy Family
The Kennedy family in their living room in Bronxville, New York in 1938. From left, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., Patricia, John F. Kennedy, Jean, Eunice, Robert, Kathleen, Edward, Rosemary, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. and Rose.Bachrach / Getty Images

Smith was viewed for much of her life as a quiet Kennedy sister who shunned the spotlight. In her memoir, “The Nine of Us,” published in 2016, she wrote that her childhood seemed “unexceptional" for much of the time.

“It is hard for me to fully comprehend that I was growing up with brothers who eventually occupy the highest offices of our nation, including president of the United States,” she explained. “At the time, they were simply my playmates. They were the source of my amusement and the objects of my admiration.”

Though she never ran for office, she campaigned for her brothers, traveling the country for then-Sen. John F. Kennedy as he sought the presidency in 1960.

Prior to JFK's assassination in November 1963, Smith stepped in that year for a traveling Jacqueline Kennedy and co-hosted a state dinner for Ireland’s president.

The same year, she accompanied her brother — the first Irish Catholic president in the U.S. — on his famous visit to Ireland. Their great-grandfather, Patrick Kennedy, was from Dunganstown in County Wexford in southeastern Ireland.

Three decades later, Smith was appointed ambassador to Ireland by President Bill Clinton, who called her “as Irish as an American can be.”

During her confirmation hearing, she recalled the trip to that country with her brother, describing it as “one of the most moving experiences of my own life.”

U.S. President Bill Clinton
Jean Kennedy Smith, President Bill Clinton's then nominee to be the ambassador to Ireland, looks on as Clinton accepts a bowl of shamrocks in honor of St. Patrick's Day from Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds in 1993 at the White House.Paul J. Richards / AFP via Getty Images

As ambassador, she played a role in the Northern Ireland peace process. She helped persuade Clinton to grant a controversial visa in 1994 to Gerry Adams, chief of the Irish Republican Army-linked Sinn Fein party. The move defied the British government, which branded Adams as a terrorist.

She later called criticism of her actions toward the IRA “unfortunate” and said she thought history would credit the Clinton administration with helping the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said in 1998, “It is not an understatement to say that if (the visa for Adams) didn’t happen at the time, perhaps other events may not have fallen into place.”

In 1996, though, Smith was reprimanded by Secretary of State Warren Christopher for punishing two of her officers who objected to the visa for Adams.

In December 1998, Smith again risked controversy by taking communion in a Protestant cathedral in Dublin, going against the bishops of her Roman Catholic church.

Her decision was a strong personal gesture of support for Irish President Mary McAleese, a fellow Catholic who had been criticized by Irish bishops for joining in the Protestant communion service.

“Religion, after all, is about bringing people together,” Smith told The Irish Times. “We all have our own way of going to God.”

When she stepped down as ambassador in 1998, she received Irish citizenship for “distinguished service to the nation.”

Diplomacy, along with politics, also ran in the Kennedy family. Her father was ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1938 to 1940. Niece Caroline Kennedy served as ambassador to Japan during the Obama administration.

“We’re the first father-daughter ambassadors,” Smith told The Irish Times in 1997. “So I can’t remember a time when we were not an actively political family."

Image: Jean Kennedy Smith, sister of the late President John F. Kennedy, walks along Giron Beach in Cuba
Jean Kennedy Smith walks along Giron Beach in Cuba in 2001.Jorge Rey / Getty Images file

Smith's son, Dr. William Kennedy Smith, made headlines in 1991, when he was charged with rape at the Kennedy estate in Palm Beach, Florida. He was acquitted after a highly publicized trial that included testimony from his uncle, Sen. Edward Kennedy, who had gone with his nephew and son to nightclubs that Easter weekend.

In addition to a life in politics, Smith founded Very Special Arts, an educational program that supports artists with physical or mental disabilities.

Her 1993 book with George Plimpton, “Chronicles of Courage: Very Special Artists,” features interviews with disabled artists. The program followed in the footsteps of her sister Eunice’s creation of the Special Olympics for disabled athletes.