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
Many Irish emigrants had hoped their departure would be temporary, but for most it was permanent, so the return home of a Catholic Irish-American US president was a compensation of sorts.
It is easy now to be quite sceptical about the visit’s long-term significance. It was not about any big political breakthrough. Academic Declan Kiberd has argued that the message of the visit was built on a delusion, if not a deliberate deception; he suggested Kennedy in Ireland “appealed to a growing national propensity for having things both ways. . . henceforth, foreign policy would be less independent, less sympathetic to decolonising peoples and more securely locked within the American sphere of influence. Yet Kennedy praised the Irish for being a nation of rebels, who had achieved great things by a refusal to conform.”
But that was the nature of how the Irish viewed themselves in the early 1960s. They were proud of the state’s origins, conscious of the tragic consequences of historic social and economic failings that were partly compensated for by the success of some of its emigrants, relieved at the change in domestic fortunes, and desired acceptance and relevance in relation to the rest of the world.
In responding to all these things, and by avoiding any mention of a divided island, Kennedy skilfully squared the circles in a way that satisfied most. His visit also established an Irish link with the White House that was to be of considerable value in the future.
Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD