When Joe Kennedy visited Ireland

De Valera offers thanks for American ‘sympathy’

The 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's visit to Ireland in June 1963 overshadows the visit of his father almost 75 years ago, in July, 1938. The reasons for Joe Kennedy's trip and its diplomatic status are unclear. It probably arose from an invitation by the taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, when he met the ambassador in London during the discussions with the British government that led to the Anglo-Irish pact in April.

According to Kennedy himself, the visit wasn’t merely a sentimental one, but at the same time it had no international or political significance. The arrangements were in the hands of the American minister in Dublin, his friend John Cudahy.

Kennedy and his 18-year-old son Joseph jnr were accompanied by officials from the London embassy and when his private aircraft landed at Baldonnel during a storm on Thursday, July 6th, he was met by Cudahy and officials from the Department of External Affairs.

His wife Rose,who had been in Ireland on a number of occasions and had kissed the Blarney Stone as a child, decided not to travel because of the weather. After lunch in the legation in the Phoenix Park, Kennedy was taken to the offices of the National University in Merrion Square to receive an honorary doctorate conferred by the chancellor, Éamon de Valera. The two then went to the taoiseach's office where they spoke for an hour. Afterwards, he met the press and, in the evening, he hosted a dinner in the legation which was attended by various dignitaries such as judges, ministers and diplomats, including the American consul general in Belfast.


Next morning he visited the papal nuncio, Dr Paschal Robinson, and met President Hyde for lunch. Later, he visited Trinity College to see the Book of Kells and was given a tour of the National Museum by the director, Adolf Mohr. Then he met the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alfie Byrne, and the leader of the opposition WT Cosgrave, returning to the Áras for another chat with Douglas Hyde.

The climax of the visit was a dinner in Dublin Castle, hosted by the taoiseach. De Valera used the occasion to thank America for the “sympathy her people had shown to many” including himself, during the period 1916-21.

He then proposed a toast to “the American ambassador in Great Britain” , a formula that politely suggested that the government didn’t recognise Kennedy as the American ambassador to the whole of the UK. Replying, Kennedy said that between the land of his fathers and Britain there had been many wars but happily there would not be another. The broad Atlantic washed all their shores and he considered that in “the policies of your great leader”, the British Crown and prime minister and the “eminent statesman”, President Roosevelt, he saw a joint determination that blood should not flow in this ocean again.

When Kennedy met the press, he told them that many people in America, especially its Irish population, regarded the new Anglo-Irish pact as a step in the right direction towards achieving the unity of the country, a piece of nonsense which suggests that he wasn’t properly briefed or, more likely, that he simply wanted to please his audience.

For good measure he added that the pact was a remarkably fine job and there was all round satisfaction in the United States at the result especially as they, themselves, hadn't succeeded in securing a trade pact with Britain.

The meeting then went off record and the journalists and ambassador had “cracks” for half an hour. Kennedy was also vague about his Irish forebears. Speaking at the conferring, he said that his sisters kept a greater track of his ancestors than he did but they didn’t think he was likely to meet any relatives in Ireland. He knew, however, that his mother’s people, the Hickeys, had their hearthstone at Clonakilty and that his father’s people had lived at Wexford Place. One newspaper reported him saying that this was in Cork.

Dunganstown wasn’t mentioned by Kennedy or any of the newspapers. He was sadly wrong in his prophecy about the Atlantic, but another prediction, that his children would visit Ireland by instalments, came mostly true.

When Kathleen, the widow of the Marquess of Hartington, the heir to the Duke of Devonshire, was staying at her in-laws’ castle in Lismore in 1947, her brother John, a congressman visiting Europe on Marshal Plan business came to see her. And one day during his stay he discovered his cousins in Co Wexford.