John F. Kennedy and Irish History

Last fall, I wrote a series of posts discussing US Presidential visits to Ireland, and one thing that I found striking was the use of history in the Presidents’ speeches.  What did they choose to focus on in Irish history, and what historical connections between Ireland and the United States did they call upon?

The most famous visit of an American president to Ireland was that of John F. Kennedy from 26 to 29 June 1963.  Find my overview of his trip here.

The Cold War was a clear backdrop to Kennedy’s words, as he referenced Ireland’s past, present, and future role as a beacon of freedom in the world.  Other frequent themes included the role of the Irish diaspora, the life of De Valera, and the Irish participation in the American Civil War.  A breakdown of his speeches follows.

Remarks Upon Arrival at Dublin Airport (26 June 1963)

In this opening speech, Kennedy set out many of the themes for the speeches he would make throughout his visit.

As you said, eight of my grandparents left these shores in the space, almost, of months, and came to the United States. No country in the world, in the history of the world, has endured the hemorrhage which this island endured over a period of a few years for so many of her sons and daughters. These sons and daughters are scattered throughout the world, and they give this small island a family of millions upon millions who are scattered all over the globe, who have been among the best and most loyal citizens of the countries that they have gone to, but have also kept a special place in their memories, in many cases their ancestral memory, of this green and misty island. So, in a sense, all of them who visit Ireland come home.

In addition, Mr. President, I am proud to visit here because of you–an old and valued friend of my father–who has served his country with so much distinction, spreading over the period of a half-century; who has expressed in his own life and in the things that he stood for the very best of Western thought and, equally important, Western action.

And then I am glad to be here because this island still fulfills a historic assignment. There are Irishmen buried many thousands of miles from here who went on missions of peace, either as soldiers or as churchmen, who traveled throughout the world, carrying the gospel as so many Irish have done for so many hundreds of years.

Remarks on the Quay at New Ross (27 June 1963)

Kennedy fittingly recounted his own family history as emigrants from Ireland.

Remarks at Redmond Place in Wexford (27 June 1963)

Kennedy remembered the role of John Barry in the American Revolutionary War and the Irish Brigade in the American Civil War.

It seems to me that in these dangerous days when the struggle for freedom is worldwide against an armed doctrine, that Ireland and its experience has one special significance, and that is that the people’s fight, which John Boyle O’Reilly said outlived a thousand years, that it was possible for a people over hundreds of years of foreign domination and religious persecution–it was possible for that people to maintain their national identity and their strong faith. And therefore those who may feel that in these difficult times, who may believe that freedom may be on the run, or that some nations may be permanently subjugated and eventually wiped out, would do well to remember Ireland.

Remarks at the City Hall in Cork (28 June 1963)

I would like to ask how many people here have relatives in the United States.  Perhaps they could hold up their hands, if they do.

… Most countries send out oil or iron, steel or gold or some other crop, but Ireland has had only one export and that is its people. They have gone all over the United States, and the United States has been generous to them. And I think it not unfair to say that they have been generous themselves and with their sons and daughters to the United States.

… And I come to this island which has been identified with that effort for a thousand years, which was the first country in the 20th century to lead what is the most powerful tide of the 20th century–the desire for national independence, the desire to be free. And I come here in 1963 and find that strong tide still beats, still runs. And I drive from where we arrived to here and am greeted by an honor guard on the way down, nearly half of whom wear the Blue Ribbon which indicates service in the Congo. So Ireland is still old Ireland, but it has found a new mission in the 1960’s, and that is to lead the free world to join with other countries of the free world to do in the sixties what Ireland did in the early part of this century and, indeed, has done for the last 800 years–and that is associate intimately with independence and freedom.

Address Before the Irish Parliament in Dublin (28 June 1963)

Earlier in the day, Kennedy laid a wreath at the graves of the executed leaders of the Easter Rising, at Arbour Hill.

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Kennedy in Ireland – photo credit: RTE

He then became the first foreign leader to address the Houses of the Oireachtas. In this important speech, Kennedy began by calling upon links between Ireland and the United States through recounting the role of the Irish Brigade in the American Civil War.

…I am proud to be the first American President to visit Ireland during his term of office, proud to be addressing this distinguished assembly, and proud of the welcome you have given me. My presence and your welcome, however, only symbolize the many and the enduring links which have bound the Irish and the Americans since the earliest days.

Benjamin Franklin–the envoy of the American Revolution who was also born in Boston–was received by the Irish Parliament in 1772. It was neither independent nor free from discrimination at the time, but Franklin reported its members “disposed to be friends of America.” “By joining our interest with theirs,” he said, “a more equitable treatment … might be obtained for both nations.”

Our interests have been joined ever since. Franklin sent leaflets to Irish freedom fighters. O’Connell was influenced by Washington, and Emmet influenced Lincoln. Irish volunteers played so predominant a role in the American army that Lord Mountjoy lamented in the British Parliament that “we have lost America through the Irish.” John Barry, whose statue we honored yesterday and whose sword is in my office, was only one who fought for liberty in America to set an example for liberty in Ireland. Yesterday was the 117th anniversary of the birth of Charles Stewart Parnell–whose grandfather fought under Barry and whose mother was born in America-and who, at the age of 34, was invited to address the American Congress on the cause of Irish freedom. “I have seen since I have been in this country,” he said, “so many tokens of the good wishes of the American people toward Ireland …. ” And today, 83 years later, I can say to you that I have seen in this country so many tokens of good wishes of the Irish people towards America.

And so it is that our two nations, divided by distance, have been united by history. No people ever believed more deeply in the cause of Irish freedom than the people of the United States. And no country contributed more to building my own than your sons and daughters. They came to our shores in a mixture of hope and agony, and I would not underrate the difficulties of their course once they arrived in the United States. They left behind hearts, fields, and a nation yearning to be free. It is no wonder that James Joyce described the Atlantic as a bowl of bitter tears. And an earlier poet wrote, “They are going, going, going, and we cannot bid them stay.”

He then called upon the words of Yeats, of Henry Grattan, of John Boyle O’Reilly, of George Bernard Shaw.

To conclude, he quoted poet George William Russell (Æ):

A great Irish poet once wrote: “I believe profoundly … in the future of Ireland … that this is an isle of destiny, that that destiny will be glorious… and that when our hour is come, we will have something to give to the world.”  My friends: Ireland’s hour has come. You have something to give to the world–and that is a future of peace with freedom.

Remarks at a Civic and Academic Reception in St. Patrick’s Hall, Dublin Castle (28 June 1963)

Kennedy praised Ireland for its educational traditions, serving as a beacon for Europe during the Dark Ages.  He compared Ireland to the United States, in its establishment of schools through the Northwest Ordinance and Land Grant colleges.

Remarks at Eyre Square in Galway (29 June 1963)

If the day was clear enough, and if you went down to the bay, and you looked west, and your sight was good enough, you would see Boston, Mass. And if you did, you would see down working on the docks there some Doughertys and Flahertys and Ryans and cousins of yours who have gone to Boston and made good.

I wonder if you could perhaps let me know how many of you here have a relative in America, who you would admit to–if you would hold up your hand? I don’t know what it is about you that causes me to think that nearly everybody in Boston comes from Galway. They are not shy about it, at all.

Remarks at a Reception in Limerick (29 June 1963)

I wonder, before I go, if I could find out how many citizens here have relations in the United States?  Do you think you could hold up your hand, if you do?  No wonder there are so many of them over there.

Well, I will tell you, they have been among the best citizens and they behave themselves very well, and you would be proud of them.  And they are proud of you.  Even though a good many years have passed since most of them left, they still remain and retain the strongest sentiments of affection for this country.  And I hope that this visit that we have been able to make on this occasion has reminded them not only of their past, but also that here in Ireland the word ‘freedom,’ the word ‘independence,’ the whole sentiment of a nation is perhaps stronger than it is almost any place in the world.

He then referenced the role of De Valera:

To see your President, who has played such a distinguished part, whose life is so tied up with the life of this island in this century – all this has made the past very real, and has made the present very hopeful.

Remarks at Shannon Airport Upon Leaving for England (29 June 1963)

In his final remarks in Ireland, Kennedy emphasized the role of history in Irish culture, and the historic connections between Ireland and America through the diaspora:

Ireland is an unusual place.  What happened 500 or 1000 years ago is yesterday; where we on the other side of the Atlantic 3000 miles away, we are next door.  While there may be those removed by two or three generations from Ireland, they may have left 100 years ago their people, and yet when I ask how many people may have relatives in America nearly everybody holds up their hands.

 

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