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.
The State had much to gain from his trip. Despite Ireland’s lack of strategic importance to the US in terms of its overall foreign policy, Kennedy invested much in the acknowledgement of the achievement of Irish independence.
The highlight of his visit, according to Kennedy himself, 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. Taoiseach Seán Lemass later acknowledged that the Arbour Hill ceremony was “an event for us of great emotional significance. He was the first head of state ever to go through the ceremony of honouring the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising. The fact that he, as president of the United States, the greatest nation in the world, of Irish origin, performed the ceremony had to have a tremendously emotional effect upon the Irish people.”
But for Lemass there was also the satisfaction to be derived from his meeting with Kennedy on the first morning of his visit at the US embassy residence. For the government this was a highlight, as it seemed to involve an acceptance of Ireland back into the “Western bloc” despite its refusal to countenance membership of Nato and its military neutrality which had caused some fury and created considerable strain in previous years, most obviously during the Emergency.
Kennedy had also been advised to thank the Irish government for searching Eastern bloc aircraft at Shannon en route to Cuba during the missile crisis and he was reminded to express gratitude for the Irish contribution to world peace and in particular its peacekeeping role in the Congo where 23 Irish soldiers had died.
Much of their discussion focused on trade liberalisation and Ireland’s desire to join the EEC, which Lemass insisted was essential, and which Kennedy supported.
Lemass would also have been pleased that Kennedy, in his skilfully crafted address to the joint houses of the Oireachtas, as well as focusing on the long history of Irish nationalism, referred to “a new and peaceful revolution, an economic and industrial revolution. . . you have modernised your economy, harnessed your rivers, diversified your industry, liberalised your trade, electrified your farms, accelerated your rate of growth, and improved the living standard of your people”.
The opening up of the Irish economy, which Lemass and TK Whitaker had championed in the late 1950s, was bearing fruit. Gross national product had grown 4.5 per cent each year from 1959 to 1963, unemployment had fallen by one third and the level of emigration had been significantly reduced. Television had arrived and the smooth organisation of the visit of the most important political dignitary ever to come Ireland was a chance to showcase professionalism, modernity and confidence.
But it was emigration that was central to the Kennedy story and inevitably, it was a prime focus of his visit. The decade prior to his visit had witnessed half a million people leave Ireland; very few families were unaffected in some way, and there was a rawness about this issue that was palpable. It was a fact of Irish life that had caused much pain. Kennedy explicitly referred to “the haemorrhage which this island endured”.
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