With Joe Biden’s visit to the Emerald Isle still fresh in our memory, we thought we would reflect on a time when Wexford had a US presidential visit of its own…
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy addressing a crowd in Wexford town, 27 June 1963. (NLI, Independent Newspapers Collection)
‘I’m home’, US president Joe Biden recently declared while speaking in the Dáil chamber. The world leader’s four-day visit culminated in a return to his ancestral home of Ballina, Co. Mayo. Biden’s great-great-grandfather made the perilous journey across the Atlantic in 1848, in the midst of Ireland’s Great Hunger.
Biden is one of millions of Americans whose ancestors emigrated from Ireland to the United States generations ago. Famously, many Irish Americans are incredibly proud of their Irish heritage and long to get in touch with their roots in any way possible. US presidents, as it turns out, are no exception.
To date, 11 serving US presidents have visited the Emerald Isle. Many of these, including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, took the opportunity to make historic visits to their ancestral home towns. But there is a single US president whose connection with Ireland trumps all others. He made history by being the first serving US president to visit Ireland, and his paternal great-grandparents hailed from none other than New Ross, County Wexford.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy visited Ireland in June of 1963. It was just five months before his life was tragically cut short at the age of 46, when he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Kennedy recalled his visit to Ireland as ‘the best four days of my life’.
Just three generations previously, JFK’s great-grandparents Patrick Kennedy and Bridget Kennedy (née Murphy) departed New Ross for Boston, Massachusetts in search of a better life. There, they grew the soon-to-be prosperous and renowned Kennedy family. From humble beginnings emerged a family that took the United States by storm. Patrick and Bridget’s son, Patrick Joseph ‘PJ’ Kennedy was the first to be elected to public office in the United States, starting a trend of Kennedys in politics that continues to this day.
When the US president stepped foot on Wexford soil during that summer of ‘63, it was a giant leap not only for the Kennedy family but for Irish and Irish-American people the world over. When Patrick and Bridget Kennedy left New Ross in the nineteenth century, who could have possibly imagined that their great-grandson would later return to this same land as the most powerful man in the Western world?
The morning after his arrival in Dublin, the US president travelled to O’Kennedy Park in New Ross by helicopter. He was then driven to the quay in New Ross where he gave a speech to a crowd of 10,000. In this speech, Kennedy declared he was ‘glad to be here’ and that it ‘took 115 years to make this trip.’
From New Ross, Kennedy was driven to the Kennedy family homestead in Dunganstown. There, his distant cousins waited to greet him with a warm welcome home as well as tea and cake. While sharing tea with his relatives, JFK told them he wished to toast ‘all the Kennedys who went and all the Kennedys who stayed’.
JFK then left his ancestral home of Dunganstown to pay a visit to Wexford town. It was here that he famously laid a wreath at the foot of the iconic Commodore John Barry statue. A poetic moment to say the least; like the Kennedy family, John Barry also left Wexford to help shape the United States of America. Today, John Barry is one of few historical figures who are referred as ‘the father of the American navy’.
After paying tribute to the Commodore, Kennedy accepted the Freedom of the Town and gave a speech to the large crowd. Addressing the audience as ‘my friends’, JFK asked for any fellow Kennedys in the crowd to raise their hands. Upon seeing several hands raise, the US president joked that he was ‘glad to see a few cousins that didn’t catch the boat.’
‘My country welcomed so many sons and daughters of so many countries (…) and gave them a fair chance and a fair opportunity. The speaker of the House of Representatives is of Irish descent. The leader of the Senate is of Irish descent (…) through millions of your sons and daughters and cousins (…) we see something of what is great about Ireland.’
-John F. Kennedy, 27 June 1963.
Kennedy closed the day by returning to Dublin where Irish Taoiseach Seán Lemass held a state dinner in his honour at the Iveagh House, St Stephen’s Green. His Irish trip ended two days later on 29 June. JFK is said to have wished that he could stay ‘for another week, or another month’ as his trip came to an end.
In a speech to a crowd at Shannon Airport, the US president thanked the Irish people for their hospitality and declared ‘This is where we all say goodbye.’ A statement that would soon prove tragic; for JFK would never get the chance to be reunited with Ireland. While it is easy to be forlorn over this fact, it is important to remember the joy Ireland brought to JFK and the joy that he brought to it.
‘Your visit has been a source of joy and pride to all the people of Ireland and to all their kin throughout the world.’
-Éamon de Valera in a telegram to JFK
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