Thursday 23 November 2017

Green giant

Taoiseach ENDA KENNY says President Kennedy's visit to Ireland 50 years ago marked a pivotal moment in our national experience

An Taoiseach Enda Kenny photographed for the ‘Irish Independent’ at Government Buildings. Photo: Dave Meehan.
An Taoiseach Enda Kenny photographed for the ‘Irish Independent’ at Government Buildings. Photo: Dave Meehan.
President Kennedy with Taoiseach Sean Lemass on the runway at Dublin Airport after JFK’s arrival on June 26, 1963. (NPA/Independent Newspapers)
Crowds at Dublin airport on June 26, 1963

President John F Kennedy's visit in 1963, the first ever by a serving US president, remains one of the most iconic events of 20th Century Ireland.

Footage from that time, though grainy, effectively captures the rapturous reception that greeted our visitor, the scale of the excitement, elation and sheer pride that consumed our little island for four wonderful days in June, whether we managed to clasp a famously tanned hand or not.

And, the various images which document his four short days here tell us that President Kennedy indeed shook very many hands throughout that visit, from Dublin to Cork, Galway, Limerick and, of course, to Wexford. But he did so much more than that.

Because, as he stepped off Air Force One in Dublin Airport on that fine summer's evening, President Kennedy was, at once, the Leader of the Free World and one of an Irish "family of millions upon millions . . . scattered all over the globe." And, of his wonderfully unique position, we, as a nation, were incredibly proud. Irish emigrants, through their imagination, talent and hard work have always made their way across the world but here was a man whose eight great-grandparents had left these shores in the aftermath of the Great Famine and who had gone on to reach the very highest echelons of power.

I firmly believe that his Irish visit has come to represent a genuinely pivotal moment in our collective experience. Furthermore, the ongoing significance of those four June days is very evident in the fact that we still celebrate and remember them 50 years on. Indeed, President Kennedy, through his words and encouragement, in effect shifted the national psyche, convincing us that Ireland, though small, still had a capacity for greatness and the ability to play a meaningful role on the world stage.

Of course, this was a nostalgic visit for President Kennedy, affording him as it did the opportunity to see the country his forefathers had left in hunger and desperation many years previously. And the experience clearly had a great effect on him, leading him, as he departed, to declare Ireland "the land for which I hold the greatest affection" and adding that he would "certainly come back in the springtime". However, we know that, tragically, would not prove possible.

Throughout his time here, President Kennedy recalled Ireland's proud past but also articulated a new vision of Ireland's future – one of promise and of purpose and one which we responded to warmly. In his famous address to the Oireachtas on the afternoon of June 28, 1963, he praised our history as a peacekeeping nation, our wealth of talent, our artistic and literary contribution to the world and referenced "the many and the enduring links which have bound the Irish and the Americans since the earliest days", whilst poignantly acknowledging the "mixture of hope and agony" felt by so many new emigrants.

And, though the Ireland of the 1960s he visited has changed in many ways, his message of hope and optimism remains pertinent. Peace has come to our island, thanks in no small part to the efforts and belief of our friends in America and, despite our recent difficulties, our country has progressed significantly in a myriad of ways, politically, socially and economically. Nevertheless, President Kennedy's appeal to the Irish people's unique "combination of hope, confidence and imagination" remains as relevant and as vital as it did then – perhaps even more so.

Fifty years on, Ireland and America continue to enjoy a uniquely deep and special relationship. In this month of June, we remember the events of that special summer with affection and celebrate the enduring ties of friendship between "two nations, divided by distance . . . united by history".

Irish Independent

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