A journey home that benefited all
Despite suggestions that the trip was a jaunt for political gain, it is hard to deny the significance of the visit for Ireland at the time or its enduring effect
The highlight of the US president’s visit, Kennedy himself said, was a ceremony at Arbour Hill where 14 executed leaders of the 1916 Rising rested; this was as close to a political statement as he would make
In March 1963, US president John F Kennedy told the Irish ambassador in Washington, Thomas J Kiernan, that he was not going to play politics with the question of the partition of Ireland.
As reported by Kiernan to the government, Kennedy outlined why he could not support the idea that Britain should be pressurised into making a declaration in favour of Irish unity: “There is a long built-in history involved, which includes religious differences, and it has to be seen like that from the British point of view; he is convinced that no British minister could feel able to make a public statement of the kind suggested.”
The response the ambassador got, three months before Kennedy’s visit to Ireland, is a reminder that on the US side there was a determination that the visit would not be used to advance an Irish political agenda on an issue as controversial and delicate as partition.
Given the euphoria and celebration that the visit ultimately generated, the interesting thing about archival documents dealing with the background and preparations for the visit is that they are strewn with caution and concern. Documents in the JFK Library refer to the assessment of the American embassy in Dublin that the visit was largely viewed as “a somewhat sentimental journey strewn with shamrocks back to the home of his ancestors”, and notes prepared on the American side for the Irish trip summarised the aims of US policy towards Ireland as “seeking to maintain and strengthen the friendly relations which traditionally had existed between the peoples of America and Ireland and to encourage Irish participation in international affairs”.
But these moderate aspirations do not mean that the visit was insignificant. Diplomats and civil servants making preparations were concerned with what needed to be avoided and were hardly going to elaborate on the intensity of the personal appeal of this trip for Kennedy, but it was that feeling and the response to it that made the trip successful, memorable and overwhelmingly positive.
For him, the trip provided some downtime after the euphoria of the Berlin address he made just before he came to Ireland, in which he uttered the words “Ich bin ein Berliner”, a reminder that he was, first and foremost, a Cold War leader.
In the words of his aide and future biographer Arthur Schlesinger, the Irish trip was “a blissful interlude of homecoming”. But he also took the Irish visit seriously precisely because of that sense of a personal homecoming.
Some of his biographers have disputed his commitment to his Irish identity and suggested he was a natural Anglophile, as did some of his contemporaries, including Kiernan, who felt that Kennedy’s attitude towards Ireland “was something which grew, which wasn’t there at the beginning because he wanted above all things to be a good New Englander”. This assertion was, however, somewhat wide of the mark; there was nothing to stop Kennedy having different or overlapping sides to his identity or to combine his instinctive belief in the “special relationship” between Britain and the US with an embrace of his Irish heritage.
Purpose of visit
The essence of Kennedy’s engagement with Irish history and the care with which his many words were chosen suggested something a bit deeper than Kiernan allowed for. A cynic might have concluded that Kennedy was simply using this trip to bolster his Irish-American vote, but surely a four-day visit to Ireland was not necessary to achieve this, especially given that before he left the US for Europe, there were many who suggested there were compelling reasons for him to stay at home.