JFK. Few abbreviations are as universally understood as these three little letters. MP, TD, PhD etc. all serve as a suffix to highlight the distinction of an individual, but not so with JFK. They’ve been eternally reserved for a single individual, the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Such is the impact that he had on the world during his short presidency.
His term is best remembered for the role he played in the Cold War. His response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, his determination to surpass the USSR in the ‘Space Race’ and his shocking assassination in November 1963 are the events most often cited when speaking of his legacy. However his charismatic personality, iconic image and impassioned oratory have stood the test of time.
His emotive and poignant speeches whether delivered from the steps of Capitol Hill or in front of the Berlin Wall connected with his audience, and often signalled landmark shifts in US domestic and foreign policies. His address to the joint Irish Houses of the Oireachtas on June 28, 1963 was one such moment.
When Air Force One touched down on the runway at Dublin Airport two days before, President Kennedy became the first serving US head of state to visit the island of Ireland. He would spend four days in the country during which time he would visit Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and his family’s ancestral home in Wexford. His arrival was long anticipated and he was jubilantly received by the Irish people.
Kennedy was of course not the first, nor the last US president with Irish lineage. In all some 22 of the 45 men to have held that office claim some form of Irish ancestry. This connection began with Andrew Jackson (7th President) whose parents had emigrated from Carrickfergus only two years before his birth, right up to Barack Obama (44th President) whose family have ties to Moneygall.
Neither was Kennedy the first White House resident to have visited the island; this honour belongs to Ulysses S Grant (18th President) who visited Ireland and his own ancestral home in 1879 during his tour of Europe, two years after leaving office. However JFK ’s status as the first Roman Catholic elected president, the first serving president to visit the island and the first US President to visit an independent Irish state heralded his visit as significant.
The president also benefited from the advent of television. The young Republic had only launched its first television station, Telefís Éireann, two years earlier but Kennedy had long mastered the medium. His state visit was extensively recorded and this included his personal address to the Dáil; which was also the first by a foreign head of state.
He spoke at length about the long, shared history of Ireland and the United States, the impact that Irish immigrants had in shaping and advancing America and its institutions and the role they had and continued to play in the defence of liberty and freedom in the world.
He also referenced and quoted from several Irishmen who had played key roles in American history such as James Hoban, the architect of the White House, John Barry, the father of the US Navy, John Boyle O’Reilly, a noted Fenian leader, poet and journalist and Thomas Francis Meagher, the leader of the Irish Brigade in the Union Army in the American Civil War and later Acting Governor of Montana Territory.
President Kennedy presented one of the flags of this battalion, the ‘Fighting 69th’, to the Irish people and ended his address with a call to action; announcing that Ireland’s hour had come and that her role on the global stage was to ensure ‘peace with freedom’.
JFK was many things to many people and this was evident in his dealings with Ireland. Ever the pragmatist, his televised visit was partially for the benefit of his Irish-American constituents leading up to an election year but equally it signified a ‘return to the fold’ for Ireland in the wake of the diplomatic isolation it had endured following its refusal to join NATO.
Here, JFK’s ascent to the pinnacle of US politics was an ‘Irish’ success story to be proud of and often his portrait could be found beside that of the Pope in Irish homes long after he had departed from the island. Ireland had claimed him as their own.
Written by Nathan Mannion, Museum Curator at EPIC, and published in issue 2 of our special 4-part supplement with the Irish Independent