Heroics came long after the hero
JFK’s contribution to Irish political concerns was minimal. On the national question, the true heroes were Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton
US President Ronald Reagan drinks a pint of Guinness in the Ronald Reagan pub in Ballyporeen, Co Tippeary, in 1984, accompanied by his wife Nancy. Photograph: Pat Langan
US president Bill Clinton shakes hands with Martin McGuinness (left) while Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams watches on in September 1998. Photograph: AP
US president Bill Clinton waves to an estimated crowd of 100,000 who crammed Dublin’s city centre in honour of his peace drive in December 1995.
JFK was an Irish hero feted like no other during his triumphant visit in 1963. Pictures of him with his glamorous wife, who did not accompany him, on mantelpieces all over Ireland testify to his enduring appeal long after he waved farewell with that famous promise to return. In Catholic homes, perhaps only Pope John XXIII came close, and in my grandmother’s living room, pictures of both icons appeared beside each other.
However, he was no hero as far as Ireland was concerned. That mantle belongs rightly to his successors in the White House, with Bill Clinton challenged for the top spot by – believe it or not – Ronald Reagan.
JFK’s appeal in Ireland was overwhelmingly emotional, as the near hysteria surrounding his visit showed. In contrast, his contribution to Irish political life was minimal, especially when it came to mention of Northern Ireland and Dublin’s relations with London. There were other, much more important issues to deal with in 1963 under the cloud of the Cold War, and the Kennedy White House let nothing obstruct that priority.
As taoiseach, Sean Lemass accepted this (had he really any choice?) and acted accordingly. The Irish question was something to be settled in Ireland by Irishmen – a phrase that was to be repeated by Jack Lynch as the 1960s rolled on. Questioning of the traditional stance on partition – that Ireland was unjustly and illegitimately partitioned by England and it was all her fault – intensified.
Lemass and Frank Aiken, his foreign minister, made the trip to the White House in October 1963 where they were treated to a formal dinner by the president. As is common on such occasions, both leaders toasted each other. Their remarks are telling indeed.
Referring to the flood of newly independent African states as decolonisation swept through that continent, Kennedy held up Ireland as the shining example of a small state winning its freedom.
“. . . the most significant example, the predecessor of this tremendous parade, which has been the most astonishing fact of post-war life, the most unique example of course was Ireland which blazed the trail, set the example, was the point of the spear, the arrowhead,” he said.
He spoke as if the unresolved Irish issue had been settled. Lemass responded with remarks that would seem cap-in-hand in the context of today’s world.
He began by way of an anecdote involving a “little old lady” from Mayo who had asked him to tell Kennedy of her admiration of him as he was “a fine Christian gentleman”.
Referring to the president’s visit to Ireland the previous June, Lemass said, “Everybody. . . is still talking about the young man who came to Ireland to visit with us – the president of the United States of America – and won all their hearts with his charm and a smile,” he said.