The Lion of Irish-America
Deaglán de Bréadún
Having been out on sick leave for the last number of weeks having a minor operation, blogging was not one of your humble scribe’s priorities. But there was one major event I would like to comment on, even at this late stage.
Coffin of Edward Kennedy leaving Hyannis Port for Boston
That was the death of Senator Edward Kennedy. It was interesting to observe the differences in coverage between the Irish and British media. The latter tended to focus on his human failings, particularly his behaviour at the time of the Chappaquiddick tragedy. Were they still smarting over his stance on Northern Ireland? The Irish media accentuated the positive.
Kennedy was larger than life, with massive faults and equally substantial positive attributes. One has heard stories of womanising or attempted womanising on the Senator’s part and indeed he was not the only figure on the Irish-American scene with that kind of reputation.
But as Thomas Carlyle wrote of Danton in his history of the French Revolution, “With all his dross, he was a man.” Indeed it is possible to see his whole life after Chappaquiddick as a voyage of redemption for his conduct in that terrible event.
He became, as has been said many times since his passing, “The Lion of the Senate”. Non-Americans do not understand how much inter-party cooperation there is in US politics and much of the credit for this must go to Kennedy.
I remember being invited to his office on Capitol Hill with a group of journalists some years back and being touched by the fact that he kept a small, three-legged dog there as a pet.
That type of compassion, even in small things, is a Kennedy trademark (yes, yes, I know some will say Mary Jo Kopechne did not see much of it). Another example I came across was when he sent the relatives of an Irish victim of 9/11 an American flag which was flown over the US Capitol in Washington, D.C., in memory of those who died. Cynics take note: there was nothing in it for Kennedy – it was just the right thing to do.
On a more personal note, when the present writer was stationed in Belfast during the highly-demanding period of the Good Friday Agreement, the Senator sent me a nice letter in appreciation of his coverage. There was no obvious gain for Kennedy – it was just a simple act of decency and generosity.
Incidentally, I have never seen the current Taoiseach happier than on an occasion in Boston where he was welcomed by Ted Kennedy. Small wonder that Brian Cowen went out of his way to attend the funeral and, from the photographs, was clearly moved by the occasion.
Kennedy’s stance on Busing during the vicious controversy on the issue in Boston in the mid-1970s was an act of pure political courage of a kind that is all too rarely seen. In retrospect, one might question the wisdom of the policy of busing children from an African-American background into hostile white neighbourhoods and vice-versa but Kennedy stood firm under what must have been fairly serious local pressure.
If one could distill his lengthy career into a single sentence, it could be said that he brought an element of much-needed humanity to the political process. This was much in evidence in his approach to Northern Ireland where he combined sympathy for the grievances of nationalists with a firm stance against the use of violence for political ends.
He presided over an event in Derry some years ago, which this writer covered, where the speakers included the father of a Catholic taxi-driver shot by loyalists and the mother of one of the last British soldiers to die in the Troubles. The combination sent its own message: we’re all human here.
It’s a cliché of course, but what can one say in conclusion about Ted Kennedy except: Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann (His likes will not be seen again.)