Tuesday 26 September 2017

Ireland's man in DC in June 1963: Ambassador Thomas Kiernan

An Irish ambassador's dream

Here you go: Ambassador Kiernan starts the groundwork in 1961.
Here you go: Ambassador Kiernan starts the groundwork in 1961.

Dr Michael Kennedy

The strong rapport between Ireland's ambassador to the USA in 1963, Thomas Kiernan, and John F Kennedy was central to the success of President Kennedy's visit to Ireland.

The future President Kennedy was seven years old when Kiernan, twenty years Kennedy's senior, entered the then Department of External Affairs in Dublin. His career stretched from 1920s London, through the Vatican during World War Two to postwar Australia, Germany and Canada. As Ambassador to the USA from 1960 to 1964, he held one of Ireland's most senior diplomatic posts.

Kiernan presented his credentials to President Eisenhower, but it was on Kennedy that the veteran diplomat made a lasting mark. When in early 1961 they first met, Kiernan immediately knew that he and Kennedy were "on the same wave length". In May 1961 Kennedy told the Irish Ambassador to France that Kiernan had become a great friend of his and "comes to see me all the time", adding "he brought me a present on the 17th March".

Kiernan used the yearly St Patrick's Day presentation of shamrock to the President (which began in 1952) to quietly let Kennedy know he would be very welcome if he chose to visit Ireland. Never pressurising or intruding on White House business, Kiernan's style paid off.

On St Patrick's Day 1963 Kennedy confidentially told Kiernan that he wanted to visit Ireland. Retirement beckoned, but Kiernan stayed on. As Kennedy's visit took shape the Irish ambassador became the critical co-ordinating link between Ireland and the White House, often planning sections of the visit with the President.

Kiernan could easily learn from Kennedy what would or would not be acceptable to the President. He could convey this to Dublin without causing difficulties. Knowing Kennedy's anglophile streak, Kiernan also carefully sidelined attempts by Minister for External Affairs Frank Aiken to place Partition openly on Kennedy's agenda.

Unlike his predecessors, most of whom had poor links at high-levels in Washington, Kiernan developed a unique personal connection with the President of the United States. A sign of their closeness was when Kiernan explained that Kennedy's favoured dates for visiting Ireland "would suit us whatever they may be" and Kennedy replied "of course you would be there ... to meet me in Dublin".

Protocol dictated that Kiernan would be on the tarmac to greet Air Force One, but so too did what Kiernan called "that intangible thing" between two men who were "exactly on the same level".

Dr Michael Kennedy, Royal Irish Academy.

Irish Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Life