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Wednesday 21 March 2018

Ambassador Kiernan's final act: planting shamrock on Kennedy's grave

Dr Michael Kennedy

Just over a fortnight after President John F Kennedy's burial in Arlington Cemetery, the Irish embassy in Washington contacted the US Department of Agriculture with a seemingly routine query on importing shamrock.

The importation of shamrock was nothing out of the ordinary. Its presentation on St Patrick's Day to the president of the United States was a regular feature of Washington life since 1950. But this query was special. It was made following a special arrangement by President Eamon de Valera when he was in Washington for President Kennedy's funeral.

A permit was required, so forms would have to be filled in. The shamrock would have to be sent by mail and would be quarantined. Its roots had to be kept "completely free of soil".

The significance of this correspondence only became clear on January 31, 1964, when the embassy informed the Department of Agriculture in Dublin that "the whole question of obtaining and sending the shamrock will be taken care of by the president's gardener".

This was not President Lyndon Johnson's gardener at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but President De Valera's at the Phoenix Park. The shamrock about which there was so much discussion was to be grown in the gardens of áras an Uachtaráin and, on De Valera's arrangement, planted on President Kennedy's grave at Arlington Cemetery.

On St Patrick's Day 1964, Mrs Kennedy visited her husband's grave. She watched as a portion of the shamrock from áras an Uachtaráin was planted to form the first section of a Celtic cross.

With her at Arlington was Ireland's ambassador to the US, Thomas J Kiernan. Kiernan had a close personal and professional relationship with President Kennedy. The two men had been instrumental in the planning of the president's June 1963 visit to Ireland.

Earlier that day, Kiernan had presented Jackie Kennedy with a crystal vase containing a corsage of the same áras an Uachtaráin shamrock.

After the ceremony at Arlington, Kiernan made the short trip to the White House to present a further vase of shamrock to President Johnson. But beforehand at Arlington, he had undertaken an even more significant act.

Jackie Kennedy laid her shamrock corsage on the grave, but it was Kiernan, not one of the Kennedys, who had planted the shamrock. It was enduring evidence of the strength of the relationship between the two men.

Kiernan retired a month later. It was fitting that the planting of the shamrock on Kennedy's grave was one of his final acts in Washington.

Irish Independent

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