It was — for once — a “nugget of happy news for the Kennedy family”: On May 22, 1997, Courtney Kennedy Hill, the second daughter of assassinated Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, welcomed her first and only child with Paul Hill, whom she had been married to for four years.
They named their daughter Saoirse, Gaelic for “freedom.” Soon after, Courtney told The New York Times that Saoirse would carry neither her mother’s famous family name nor the weight that came with it, which seemed like an anvil to tie itself to more Kennedys than not.
“I just thought it would be one name too many,” Courtney said.
Still, Saoirse was born a Kennedy and a Kennedy was how she died: Authorities, identifying her as Saoirse Kennedy Hill, said they found her unresponsive at the family’s storied Massachusetts compound on Thursday afternoon following what multiple news outlets reported was a suspected overdose.
She was 22. (Her official cause of death is pending a toxicology report.)
“The world is a little less beautiful today,” the family’s matriarch, 91-year-old Ethel Kennedy, said in a statement.
Twenty-two years earlier, Ethel was quoted in the Times following Saoirse’s birth: “I am delighted to say that the baby, mother, father and grandmother are all doing well.”
A family friend says Saoirse was found in Ethel’s home on the property where her mother, Courtney, had also stayed in recent years. A rising senior at Boston College, where she was studying communications, Saoirse was expected to return to school later this month. “She was very kind, funny, bright, smart,” a Boston College friend, Bill Stone, tells PEOPLE.
“I literally watched her social media stories earlier that day, less than 12 hours before the story broke,” Stone says.
“She seemed happy,” he recalls but says, “I knew she had her demons.”
Weeks before she died, Stone says, he had lunch with some of Saoirse’s other friends. “They were a little worried about her. … They knew that she’d struggled in the past,” he recalls.
And while Saoirse could be candid about those struggles, including a 2016 essay for her high school newspaper about her mental health issues and a previous suicide attempt, she did not let them define her.
“Saoirse was fierce, both in her love for her family and yearning for justice,” her uncle Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote on Instagram, along with several family photos of her. “A fearless adventurer, she inspired curiosity and daring in her friends. But her greatest gift was to find humor in everything and to give us all the gift of her laughter — and our own. The gaping hole that she leaves in our family is a wound too large to ever heal.”
Her Parents Meet and Her Early Life
Once called “the most private” of Robert F. Kennedy’s children — “who never went to college or followed a traditional career path,” instead working for charity and human rights organizations — Courtney Kennedy Hill connected with Paul Hill, Saoirse’s father, in 1990 thanks to mom Ethel.
Courtney was then waylaid in New York City after a skiing injury. “My mother asked him if he were going to New York if he would come and visit me,” she said in an interview with Irish radio broadcaster RTE earlier this year.
Paul was only recently a free man after 15 years behind bars. He had been notoriously wrongfully convicted of deadly Irish Republican Army bombings in the ’70s. A member of the “Guildford Four,” whose case inspired the 1993 film In the Name of the Father, Paul grew close to Ethel’s brother Joseph Kennedy II in the ’80s as Joe championed the group’s innocence.
“When [Paul] later visited the U.S., Ethel Kennedy was so taken with him that she asked him to visit her daughter Courtney,” according to a previous PEOPLE report. A construction worker before his arrest, Paul published a memoir after his release and was later described as a human rights advocate
“I fell in love right away,” Courtney said in her radio interview in May. The two married in June 1993 aboard a yacht in the Aegean Sea. The Greek TV tycoon Vardis Vardinoyannis, who owned the yacht, also officiated.
”It’s obvious they fell for each other under strange circumstances,” a friend told PEOPLE at the time. ”But they’re here — and they’re very much in love.”
Four years later almost to the month, Saoirse was born in Washington, D.C. While the Hills had initially split their time between Ireland and N.Y.C., they moved full-time to Ireland when Saoirse was 4.
“We got to go to the ocean everyday,” Courtney later recalled. “I’d been to Ireland a lot, and I always fell in love. It always felt like home. Because Paul was here and Saoirse was only 4, it seemed like a good time to come over and be able to do that,” she said. “And it was fabulous.”
‘Mostly Happy,’ but Depression Takes Root
The family eventually returned stateside: Courtney said in May she was back and forth between Cape Cod in Massachusetts and D.C. Saoirse, like her cousins, spent summers in Hyannis Port.
“She [Courtney] and Saoirse were so close. She loved Saoirse and did everything for her. They talked on the phone all the time,” says Sam Barber, a well-known painter on Cape Cod who instructed Courtney. “When Courtney was painting with me in my studio, she’d be here for three hours and Saoirse would usually call twice, at least, to talk to her mother. … They were always laughing.”
Paul, she said this year, is “somebody who looked forward and didn’t look back, and he had a lot of funny stories and he always looked at the bright side of things.” Their daughter shared that same insistent sunniness and, like her father, Saoirse “always has a different twist on things.”
Since her death, many who knew Saoirse have spoken of her brightness and warmth and also her drive — what in other Kennedys has pushed them to be politicians and public servants. Saoirse, too, was politically and socially minded. She saw the world and what could change in it; and she could be as discerning about herself.
“My depression took root in the beginning of my middle school years and will be with me for the rest of my life,” she wrote in a 2016 piece for the student newspaper at her private school, the elite Deerfield Academy. “Although I was mostly a happy child, I suffered bouts of deep sadness that felt like a heavy boulder on my chest.”
At first unwelcome but persistent, her depression eventually became familiar and then almost soothing, Saoirse wrote: not unlike a nagging friend that never left so that, with time, “you almost began to enjoy having them around.”
Her sophomore year in high school was almost too much. The winter was “lonely, dark, and long,” she wrote. “During the last few weeks of spring term, my sadness surrounded me constantly.” Her depression eased in the summer but returned by fall. Already crumbling, “I totally lost it after someone I knew and loved broke serious sexual boundaries with me,” Saoirse wrote, without naming the other person. She tried to kill herself and later left school for a treatment facility.
Like her daughter, Courtney had also grappled with depression, saying in May, “I’ve gone in and out of my whole life. So all of you out there who suffer from depression, you’re not alone. And you can get through it, as difficult as it is.”
Saoirse spoke out in 2016 after returning to Deerfield to encourage others in helping her dismantle the stigma around mental health.
“People talk about cancer freely; why is it so difficult to discuss the effects of depression, [bipolar], anxiety, or schizophrenic disorders?” she wrote. “Just because the illness may not be outwardly visible doesn’t mean the person suffering from it isn’t struggling.”
“Let’s come together to make our community more inclusive and comfortable,” she wrote.
“Our entire community benefited from her courage in writing and speaking on these deeply personal and important issues,” Deerfield Assistant Head of School David Thiel said this week.
Saoirse had an activist streak: She was involved with starting the Deerfield Students Against Sexual Assault, according to the school paper, and she participated in a March for Our Lives rally in 2018. At Boston College, where she enrolled after Deerfield, she became vice president of the College Democrats.
“In classes she was often the first student to offer an opinion on readings that demanded clear critique about the challenges of contemporary society,” one of her professors, Marcus Breen, told the Times.
Bernadette Rivera remembers sitting next to Saoirse on a flight from D.C. to Connecticut about a year and a half ago. Saoirse greeted her with a “big smile” and a hello, Rivera tells PEOPLE.
“One of the things that was definitely clear is that she was a very caring person, really sort of interested in the world and in the condition of humankind and trying to understand why certain things are the way that they are … and looking for ways to make it better,” Rivera says.
They talked about family, about politics, “and what was so fascinating is she was genuinely curious about the state of the world,” Rivera says.
Saoirse “didn’t openly say she suffered, but she did say that she had troubles and that she wasn’t as confident about herself as people initially thought,” Rivera says. “She recognized that she had so much to be grateful for, but it didn’t always feel that way.”
‘I Will See You Up in Heaven’
In a brief statement after Saoirse’s death, her family said they were “shattered” by her death.
“Saoirse was passionately moved by the causes of human rights and women’s empowerment and found great joy in volunteer work, working alongside indigenous communities to build schools in Mexico,” her family said.
Some of the family, including Courtney and Ethel, went out to the water on Friday afternoon aboard a family sailboat. A flag in front of Ethel’s home flew at half-staff.
“We mourn her loss,” cousin Patrick Kennedy, a former congressman, told NBC News. “But her memory will live on as someone who wasn’t going to keep silent and wasn’t going to be feeling as if she had something shameful but rather something medical that she sought treatment for.”
“She was so young, and she had everything going for her,” Barber, the local painter, says of Saoirse.
Years before she was born, Saoirse’s uncle David Kennedy fatally overdosed in a hotel room in Palm Beach, Florida. On the 30th anniversary of his death, she commemorated him online.
“You were a kind, gentle spirit that went through unimaginable struggles in your life,” she wrote, according to the Times. “It saddens me to know that we will never meet in this world, but I know I will see you up in heaven with my grandfather, Uncle Michael, and other family members.”
• With reporting by COLLEEN CRONIN, JOELLE GOLDSTEIN, MEGAN JOHNSON, JENNIFER LYNCH and LIZ McNEIL; and with material from PEOPLE STAFF REPORTS