John F Kennedy: The Irish Legacy

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I was in Dublin last week and picked up the First Day Cover, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Visit of President John F Kennedy to Ireland.

I am old enough to remember that visit. It was some forty odd years after Ireland became a nation but just seven years after Ireland was accepted into the United Nations. It was three years after Ireland sent troops on UN Peacekeeping Missions to the (Belgian) Congo.
Kennedys election as President of the USA in 1960 was actually a proud moment for Irish people. A sign that our ethnicity had at least been recognised and JFKs visit was in many ways, international recognition that we were a nation.
Some of the footage and commentary sounds twee and patronising. And the sight of Uachtaran/President De Valera and Taoiseach Sean Lemass as well as Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank Aitken, emphasises the fact that these former IRA men were closer to 1916, the War of Independence, the Civil War, the Emergency 1939-45…..JFKs visit helped to convince us that we no longer needed the inferiority complex.
Camelot died in the streets of Dallas.
For me….I was 11 years old then….it would take a while to learn that JFKs father was a bit of a crook. My father knew of course. So did every American and Irish adult.
And of course only an inner circle knew about the serial womanising of JFK.
From old Joes Hollywood starlets, to “Happy Birthday Mr President” to Mary Jo Kopechne, we know it all.
And we know about the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missisles. And that speech he made at the Berlin Wall….in the same week he visited Ireland in 1963.
It is impossible to think of JFK in Ireland in June 1963 and not think of the context that six months later he was murdered.
President Obama visited Ireland this week and visited Berlin this week.
But he is no John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
He makes good speeches and holds the Nobel Peace Prize (yes honestly) but he has done very little.
As one of my best AMerican friends put it earlier this week “he is a Chicago politician”.
And of course JFK was Boston Irish.

I think I spent most of my adult life distancing myself from the whole Kennedy Myth. True Ted Kennedy was a big player in the Norn Iron Peace Process. And true, he was always on the side of the Good Guys against the Bad Guys on Capitol Hill.

But was Camelot a sham?
On maybe four occasions I have visited the Kennedy Homestead at Dunganstown inCounty Wexford. What impresses me most is that it is NOT touristy. It is very much in the context of a family showing visitors around the outbuildings, now a tribute to a famous relative.
No “Gift Shop” just a handful of very dated postcards…. from the 1960s.
It is barely mentioned in County Wexford tourist literature. It is decidedly low key.
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I was last there in September 2003. The young man who showed us around was. The son of one of the daughters who hosted the President in 1963. A genuinely nice guy.
Of course I knew the History…it has always been a simple fact that Kennedy was absolutely genuine in his affection for Ireland. And entirely fitting that the Guard of Honour at his funeral was the from the Irish Army…he had beenimpressed by a guard drill on his visit. That is a signal honour of which the nation should be proud. The TG4 documentary about that Honour Guard is still available on YouTube. The wreath that Kennedy laid at Arbour Hill is now in the Kennedy Homestead.

Certainly in September 2003, I was skeptical.
But June 1963 was not JFKs first visit to the homestead.
Shortly after WW2, Kennedy was staying at (as I recall) Lismore Castle in County Waterford and drove to Dunganston.
A short time later he wrote to an American friend about the trip.
That letter is in Dunganstown.
In it, JFK chides his lady companion on that trip for a dismissive comment that his distant relations were like the people from "Tobacco Road". He states that she missed the whole point. The point was their DIGNITY.
And DIGNITY is everything.

As always SmartArses will be cynical about the Emigrant Flame…lit from the flame at Kennedys Arlington Grave, which will be put on display in New Ross, County Wexford, a few miles from Dunganstown. And maybe even cynical about the visit of Caroline Kennedy to mark the fiftieth anniversary of her fathers visit.
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Not everybody gets the “Irish”.
We respond to the people who do.
John F Kennedy did.
His granddaughter Tatiana seems to get us. Thanking the Irish for her “good looks and sense of humour” will resonate with us.

The simple truth is that Kennedy was both the Boston-Irish socialite…a playboy who won the 1960 Election with the questionable assistance of Chicago politicians. But thats only half the story. The other side is that he believed in Dignity. Too few people do……….and for me it is enough that HE did.

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8 Responses to John F Kennedy: The Irish Legacy

  1. factual says:

    My grandad says that JFK is highly regarded in the main because he did not have enough time in the job to become unpopular.

    • Always listen to Grandparents. We are very wise.
      I doubt if Vietnam would have made a big difference in 1964. But Civil Rights would have been an issue in the South.
      Just to add Voter Fraud in 1960 would have been an issue in 1964.
      And Kennedy won places like Alabama and I think Georgia.
      There was at least one state….Mississippi…that gave its electoral votes to a segregationalist.
      But just too many close contests and allegations of voter fraud ( probably true in Illinois) would have damaged Kennedy.

  2. When one looks at the “Tea Party” and “Birther” movements in the States, largely driven by opposition to a black man being in the White House, many forget that Kennedy faced similar opposition from a similar section of the US population to an Irish Catholic being in the White House. I think one of his greatest achievements was simply being elected in the first place. Obama may well have much the same place in history. And you are right, both came from machine politics, Boston and Chicago. Arguably neither would have been elected without that culture behind them. Both have been inspirational – both have been disappointing. Obama’s record will be blackened by his continued commitment to the War on Terror, albeit at the dirty end of the conflict. Ironically his largesse towards the CIA and various secret armies parallels Kennedy’s involvement with the CIA until he got his fingers burned over Cuba. Obama has yet to learn his lesson and looks likely he never will. He got Osama, Kennedy got the Bay of Pigs.

    • It has been argued that the Bay of Pigs was too far gone in the planning to have been aborted by Kennedy. I see a parallel where Americans paid too much heed to Cuban and later Iraqi “exiles”
      I think Bay of Pigs fiasco was largely rescued by the Cuban Missile Crisis.
      Would he have won in 1964?
      I doubt it…but it would have been more to do with American domestic politics in Mississippi, Alabama and the Confederacy.
      Ultimately JFK was a pragmatist.
      His death…and beatification….allowed Johnson to implement civil rights in a much more upfront way.
      Incidently the town I was based in in Texas was San Marcos home of Texas State University, LBJs alma mater. LBJ is a hero in this part of Texas, a liberal oasis in conservative Texas.
      Hayes County and some neighbouring counties were actually under martial law imposed by Confederates because of federalist sympathy in the area.
      I tend to see LBJ as the Vietnam President but his inclinations were very liberal.
      And the Latino/Hispanic people are absolutely devoted to him. His first great campaign was to have a WW2 Latino/Hispanic soldier buried at Arlington.

  3. factual says:

    It is interesting to get your “take” on the JFK. Good blog post.

  4. hoboroad says:

    Watched the TG4 Documentary on the Honor Guard it was great.

  5. Political Tourist says:

    I can remember a brick being thrown through the window of our family home by some local anti JFKists who took offence at a picture of Jack hanging on a bedroom wall.

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