Homecoming: JFK in Ireland, June 1963
by Helen Breen
Two years ago while in Dublin, I took a tour of Leinster House, a magnificent ducal residence now the seat of the Irish Parliament. At the end of our visit we were guided up an impressive marble staircase. There hung a beautiful green silk ceremonial flag belonging to New York’s “Fighting 69th’ Irish Brigade, led by Irish patriot Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher during the American Civil War. Fittingly, the banner was a gift from the American people to the people of Ireland (with the permission of Congress) during the historic four day visit of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy to Ireland in June 1963.
Following his moving tribute to Meagher, Kennedy charmed the Parliament that day with references to his roots, and the special love of liberty that characterizes the Irish and American experience. He also paid homage to Dublin born architect James Hoban who designed the White House. Then he quipped, “It has also been said by some that a few of the features of this stately mansion served to inspire similar features in the White House.” Unfortunately, he admitted, Hoban was “never fully paid” for his work – some things never change.
After leaving Leinster House, Kennedy’s motorcade proceeded through the streets of Dublin where he was greeted by tumultuous crowds. The same scene would be repeated several times in other cities and towns throughout the country. His party then stopped at the Arbour Hill Military Cemetery in Dublin, the resting place of 14 of the fallen leaders of the 1916 Easter Rebellion who had been executed at Kilmainham Jail. Later, JFK told his aides that his favorite part of the trip was the wreath laying and silent drill done by the Irish Cadets at the site.
THE HOMEPLACE, COUNTY WEXFORD
The focal point of the sojourn was JFK’s triumphal return to his ancestral home in New Ross, County Wexford. There he was greeted by crowds waving a sea of American flags and a boys’ choir singing “The Boys of Wexford.” Suddenly Kennedy “broke away from his bodyguards and joined the choir for a second chorus, prompting misty –eyed reactions from both observers and the press.”
Then the President enjoyed tea, cake, and homemade salmon sandwiches with his cousin Mary Ryan and other members of the clan, toasting “all those Kennedys who went and all those Kennedys who stayed.” Nor did he forget his maternal forebears, the Fitzgeralds. His great-grandfather Thomas Fitzgerald left Ireland during the Great Famine, establishing himself as a cooper in Boston. JFK explained, “he carried nothing except two things: a strong religious faith and a strong desire for liberty. I am glad to say that all of his great-grandchildren value that inheritance.”
On the last day of his visit, President Kennedy received the “Freedom of the City” award at Eyre Square in Galway City. In describing the strong bonds between Ireland and America, he concluded that “If the day was clear enough, and if you went down to the bay you looked west, and your sight was good enough, you would see Boston Massachusetts.” The motorcade then headed to Shannon Airport where yet another emotional throng had gathered to bid him farewell. JFK later remarked that his visit to Ireland had been “the happiest four days” of his life.
When JFK’s days were cut short by an assassin’s bullet five months later, his widow Jacqueline Kennedy made a request of the Irish government that those “Cadets who so impressed the President on his visit perform the drill again at his state funeral.” And so, “those awe-struck, trembling young men stood inches from the foreign dignitaries from over 90 countries and performed their silent funeral drill” at his memorial service.
The people of Ireland were devastated by the young President’s untimely death. Yet, they could take comfort in having welcomed their countryman “home” months earlier. When leaving, Kennedy had assured his admirers that he and his entourage “feel ourselves at home … and not in a strange country, but feel ourselves among neighbors, even though we are separated by generations, by time, and by thousands of miles.”
More than half a century later, American visitors still feel that the legacy of JFK’s 1963 visit lives on in Ireland.