The visit of an inspiring President Kennedy electrified the country, explains Dr DERMOT KEOGH. And it came during a decade of change for Ireland and the wider world
They were three magical days in late June 1963 which brightened the lives of hundreds of thousands of Irishmen and women who had lived through the gloom and despondency of the 1950s – a decade of mass emigration and high unemployment in a republic, recently declared, which had appeared, at times, to have been teetering on the brink of economic failure.
For Irish people abroad, the visit celebrated the struggle of Irish emigrants who had made the hard and difficult pilgrimage from rags to riches. John F Kennedy, the president of the United States, was the harbinger of hope and the instiller of a new sense of self-belief in both those who stayed at home and those who made their living abroad in Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
Kennedy, and his brothers Teddy and Bobby, personified that sense of ultimate political achievement by Irish Catholics. In the case of John F Kennedy, he secured the ultimate prize – the White House.
The reason for the extraordinary impact of his visit rested on two factors: the charismatic personality of the president himself and also in the timing of his arrival in the country. As he received the adulation of massed crowds in Dublin, Wexford, Cork, Galway and Limerick, all crowded into three days, his visit carried the implicit message – yes we can – to a nation economically down-at-heel and in need of an international role model moderniser.
The Kennedy visit acted as a fillip to a process already set in train by Sean Lemass, Taoiseach since 1959, who had initiated a series of economic policies designed nationally to 'lift all boats.' Ably assisted by Dr T Kenneth Whitaker, secretary of the Department of Finance, both men were the architects of a national economic development and recovery plan.
Irish leaders had summoned up the confidence in 1961 to apply for membership of the European Economic Community – the first step on a long road to admission that took until 1973.
Ireland, a small power, was playing its part in the early 1960s in global peacekeeping. Between 1960 and 1966, some 6,000 Irish troops served with the United Nations on peacekeeping missions in the former Belgian Congo. Twenty six of those deployed lost their lives in the field. A new sense of purpose was evident in the country in the early 1960s as the fatalism of the 1950s was challenged by an as yet ill-defined push for incipient root-and-branch change.
The Irish republic – beginning life with such high revolutionary expectation in the embers of the GPO in 1916 – had lost in the 1950s its sense of purpose and of high idealism. The Kennedy visit revealed the gulf between what was and what might have been. But it also suggested that the lost historical momentum could be restored and the country revitalised.
The descendant of famine emigrants from Wexford, Kennedy landed in Dublin on Wednesday, June 26, 1963, fresh from his defiant and challenging speech in Berlin earlier in the day where he had goaded the Soviet Union and challenged a system of government requiring a wall to keep citizens from fleeing the regime.
Ireland was very much part of the Free World that Kennedy had spoken about so eloquently and defiantly as he faced the Berlin Wall. Ireland was part of the United Nations and was, together with the United States, playing its role in the defence of the Free West.
The Kennedy trip was all the more memorable because it was transmitted in black and white pictures right across the country. Radio Telifis Eireann, broadcasting only since December 31, 1961, provided live coverage of the memorable trip to Berlin and of the US president's arrival at Dublin Airport.
At Dublin Airport, Eamon de Valera, President of Ireland since 1959, stood erect and greeted a smiling and bronzed Kennedy. Drums and trumpets sounded, as a 21-gun salute of welcome was fired.
Thus began a memorable three days which left an indelible mark on a generation fortunate enough to witness those festive events on TV and/or on the streets of Dublin, Wexford, Cork, Galway and Limerick.
The country had seen nothing like it since the Eucharistic Congress of 1932, according to one contemporary commentator, when over one million people assembled for a Pontifical Mass in the Phoenix Park, Dublin. But, in 1963, the events were reported live on TV, presenting a stiff professional challenge for the fledgling national television service.
In order to keep President Kennedy in constant contact with Washington, 'Talking Bird', the US name for its strato-cruiser communications aircraft, touched down in Dublin with 18 communications experts aboard. It was parked on a remote runway at the airport for the duration of the visit. Adding to the mystique of the visit, a helicopter flew Kennedy to his appointments. Those were more innocent times, and long before flocks of helicopters used to descend like birds of prey on the Galway Races during the short-lived so-called 'Celtic Tiger' era.
Some 3,000 gardai, or half the total national strength of the force, were concentrated in Dublin for the duration of the visit. The Irish transport carrier, CIE, conducted its greatest concentrated land transport operation since 1932. The train service also transported large numbers to the different venues around the country. A Dublin corporation staff of 250, with 100 from the lighting department, put up 1,000 flags along all the routes.
During his stay, Kennedy received honorary degrees from Trinity and the NUI, and the freedom of the cities of Dublin, Wexford, Galway, Cork and Limerick. There was a state banquet at Dublin Castle and a garden party at Aras an Uachtarain. One of the most memorable, of his many memorable speeches, was delivered to the Oireachtas on June 28, 1963. Ireland was united by history with the United States, where no people ever believed more deeply in the cause of Irish freedom.
Holding up a mirror to Irish society, he eloquently told his listeners all around the country what they wished to believe rather than the reality. But his speeches were an exhortation to modernity and to growth and prosperity. I won't say that he captured the spirit of the age, but he did encourage a jaded republic with faded ideals to aspire to greater heights.
His idealisation of the country of his ancestors may read as over-romantic in retrospect. But, at the time, he exhorted Irish leaders to press forward and achieve the ideals of the revolutionary age by modernising the economy and generating genuine prosperity. 'This is not the land of my birth, but it is the land for which I hold the greatest affection, and I will certainly come back in the springtime,' he told the audience in Limerick, as his departure for London neared. He never made that return visit.
On November 22, 1963 – less than five months after his visit to Ireland – he was assassinated in Dallas. Nevertheless, his visit in June was a high point for many Irish people struggling to make sense out of a curate's egg of a republic.
The author is Professor Emeritus of History, UCC