JFK: More than words
Stirring, immaculate, sublime. Speechwriter to two taoisigh BRIAN MURPHY says JFK's Oireachtas address was profoundly brilliant
John F Kennedy actually opened his speech to the Oireachtas with a factual inaccuracy. He told the assembled Irish parliamentarians that "the 13th day of September, 1862, will be a day long remembered in American history. At Fredericksburg, Maryland, thousands of men fought and died on one of the bloodiest battlefields of the American Civil War."
In fact, the Battle of Fredericksburg was fought in Virginia on December 13, 1862. While this was not a historical heresy on the scale of the Taoiseach's claim last summer that Michael Collins brought Vladimir Lenin to Ireland, it was still an error that would have rankled with Kennedy's speechwriter and it did not go unnoticed by aficionados of US history.
Kennedy took his speeches seriously and, in the legendary Ted Sorensen, he employed one of the best scriptwriters of the 20th Century. Sorensen, a lawyer by background, was quite simply a fantastic wordsmith. He is credited with being the main architect of Kennedy's celebrated inauguration address in which a youthful and dynamic president challenged a new generation "to ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country."
Kennedy's address to the Oireachtas was of a similar extraordinarily high standard and it is undoubtedly one of the finest speeches ever delivered in Leinster House.
The opening reference to the US Civil War and, in particular, Kennedy's praise for "the gallant Irishmen" who "ennobled their race" in battle in defence of the Union introduced a theme that would dominate Kennedy's speech – the ties of kinship between Ireland and America.
Kennedy's speech was made a century on from the US Civil War and the president paid tribute to the contribution of the Irish community in not just that conflict but for "what millions of other Irish have done for my country".
As a tour d'horizon of US-Irish relations, Kennedy's speech was a masterpiece. He touched upon Benjamin Franklin's visit to the College Green Parliament in 1772 to seek Irish support so that "a more equitable treatment . . . might be obtained by both our nations" from Britain.
He recalled that Daniel O'Connell was influenced by George Washington and he asserted that no nation did more than Ireland "to spark the cause of independence in America, indeed, around the world".
Drawing historical parallels, Kennedy paid tribute to Parnell and quoted from the Irish leader's address to the US Congress in 1880.
He also paid due deference to Ireland's "literary and artistic genius". Kennedy quoted from WB Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and James Joyce (in the case of the latter it was one of the first times that he was mentioned in the Irish Parliament outside of a censorship debate), but the impact of the speech was not defined just by Kennedy's ability to name-check great Irish figures.
Kennedy's speech connected spectacularly on an emotional level. The president had intuitively understood the need to express his understanding of and his pride in his Irishness. As the first US President of Irish Famine stock addressing the parliament of a country that had gained its independence in living memory, Kennedy's speech was for Ireland a supreme moment of national vindication.
Kennedy did not shy away from mentioning that Ireland had been a country of "persecution, political or religious" before it achieved its freedom. Speaking of the great wave of Irish emigration to America which forced many families, including his own, to flee Ireland, Kennedy used Joyce's memorable phrase to describe the Atlantic Ocean as "a bitter bowl of tears".
Kennedy had strong praise for Ireland's struggle for freedom and he contended that this was still an event of global significance. To thunderous applause, he told the Oireachtas: "Those who suffer beyond that wall I saw in Berlin on Wednesday need not despair for the future. Let them remember the constancy, the faith, the endurance and the ultimate success of the Irish. And let them remember, as I heard sung by your sons and daughters yesterday in Wexford, the words: "The boys of Wexford, who fought with heart and hand, to burst in twain the galling chain and free our native land."
Kennedy did more than give recognition par excellence to the fledgling Irish State, he also hailed Ireland's commitment to international peace-keeping and he challenged Irish policy-makers to build on this achievement for the good of mankind.
"From Cork to the Congo," the leader of the free world told the Oireachtas, "from Galway to the Gaza Strip, from this legislative assembly to the United Nations, Ireland is sending its most talented men to do the world's most important work – the work of peace . . . my friends, Ireland's hour has come. You have something to give to the world, and that is a future of peace with freedom."
It was stirring stuff and Brian Inglis, the renowned parliamentary reporter, observed that "hardened politicians wept in their seats".
Kennedy's prose was simple, his content was sublime, his delivery was immaculate and his audience was moved.
In short, the speech ticked every box.
Kennedy may have begun with an error, but it mattered little.
This was a profoundly brilliant speech.