It is 60 years since America’s first Irish-Catholic president, the son of two families whose ancestors came from Ireland, came home to trace his roots. The historic four-day visit of John F Kennedy in June 1963 marked a moment of hope, optimism and perspective for our nation, which was still finding its way in the world economically.
Addressing a crowd in New Ross, Co Wexford, Kennedy spoke for so many families who experienced emigration when he said: “When my great grandfather left here to become a cooper in East Boston, he carried nothing with him except two things: a strong religious faith and a strong desire for liberty. I am glad to say that all of his great-grandchildren have valued that inheritance.”
Kennedy represented the American dream – an innocence that was shattered five months later when he was gunned down in Dallas. The romanticism of that visit lives on, and it remains a highlight of the State’s first century in existence.
Each visit comes with the showbiz and razzmatazz associated with the Stars and Stripes. Some were welcomed with the acclaim of crowds turning out, others were tolerated and greeted with protests.
The 46th president of the United States will join this distinguished roll call next month. Joe Biden is no stranger to these shores and has been here before, connecting with his roots. He was here on an official visit as US vice-president in 2016 and came again on a private family tour in September 2017, when out of office. His visit will be confirmed when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visits the White House tomorrow for St Patrick’s Day.
Arguably the most Irish of all the presidents, he playfully toys with the British by calling himself Irish and favours Seamus Heaney quotations in his speeches. Biden can trace his ancestors back to famine days. His great-great-grandfather Patrick Blewitt left Ballina, Co Mayo, in 1850 and, once settled, returned to bring the rest of the family across the Atlantic.
There will be serious business on the Biden agenda too. The influence of Irish-American politicians in Washington has proved pivotal over the years, particularly in the peace process. While at times, the Irish-American lobby was accused of being quite “green”, it should be remembered it also contributed to forcing the republican movement to the negotiating table.
Now, 25 years later, the progress made in Northern Ireland is once again in danger of taking a step backwards. The Belfast Agreement has a shadow hanging over it as the Northern Ireland Executive is once again in limbo.
Irish-America also drew a red line under the Government’s demand that Brexit would not result in the return of a border on the island of Ireland. The resulting Northern Ireland Protocol is a sensitive balancing act to satisfy many sides. The DUP is still considering its response.
President Biden will have to tread carefully to avoid further antagonising unionists, but his message about peace, stability and prosperity will still be resonant for all audiences.