Troubles & Trimble return to Northern Ireland

The 23rd anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (April 10, 1998) arrives with a surge of violence in Northern Ireland. Though not a 10-year or quarter-century mark that would normally draw attention, events of the past week make this post as unavoidable as the media coverage from Belfast.

As The Washington Post reported, the violence has been “triggered in part by pro-British Protestant unionists who fear that their home is drifting away from Britain in the new realities of a post-Brexit world.” Then, “hundreds of Irish nationalist and unionist demonstrators began to face off, a worrying escalation that stirred old memories of the 30 years of sectarian violence known as the Troubles, which led to the deaths of 3,500 civilians, British security personnel and paramilitary members.”

David Trimble, left, and the late John Hume after winning the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize. Irish Times photo.

One early opinion piece about the latest round of troubles comes from David Trimble, the former unionist leader, who shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize with the late nationalist John Hume for their work leading to the Good Friday Agreement. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Trimble says the GFA:

protected the union and put the future of Northern Ireland in the hands of its people. Voters put their trust in my assurances and supported the agreement. Now this promise of self-determination is under threat due to the Northern Ireland protocol …

The protocol doesn’t safeguard the Good Friday Agreement. It demolishes the agreement’s central premise by removing the assurance that democratic consent is required to change Northern Ireland’s status. That is why I feel betrayed personally by the protocol; it is also why the unionists in Northern Ireland are so incensed at its imposition.

Unsurprisingly, Trimble’s piece is pocked by selective memory and self-promotion.

  • He spits about the terrorism of Irish republicans but ignores the murders and other violence committed by Northern Ireland’s loyalist mobs in collusion with British police and military officers.
  • He avoids mentioning that that majority of people of Northern Ireland voted against Brexit … they wanted to remain in the EU … but got drag in by the conservative xenophobes of the English Midlands.
  • He neglects to say that PM Boris Johnson and the British government that he and other unionists are so attached to (along with the monarchy) negotiated and agreed to this protocol.
  • Finally, he willfully ignores the fact that Johnson and many MPs in Parliament would be happy to jettison the six counties of the North, which are a drag on the British treasury.

Trimble should work to facilitate the smooth reunification of Ireland, which would eliminate all the trade barriers he ostensibly worries about. More importantly, it would help bring about the healing of the now 100-year-old division of the island of Ireland. This ultimately would be more in line with the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.

I’m not saying this would be easy. But it is the best solution for the future.

American visitors describe ‘Distress in Ireland,’ April 1921

The eight-member American delegation to Ireland visited 95 cities, towns, and villages, including the Aran Islands, in 22 of 32 counties, from mid-February to late March 1921. Now, the team prepared to report its investigation of Irish humanitarian needs to the American Committee for Relief in Ireland (ACRI), its New York-based sending organization.

Delegation leader Clemens J. France, brother of a U.S. senator, and Oren Wilbur, a creamery and dairy farming expert, would remain in Dublin to help oversee the distribution of funds from America through the Irish White Cross. The other members disbursed in pairs:

  • attorney Walter C. Longstretch and architect William Price left by mid-March;
  • agricultural specialist John C. Baker and housing expert Philip W. Furnas sailed at the end of the month for France and Germany to meet their colleagues from the American Friends Services Committee, the Quaker humanitarian organization; and
  • former Friends Intelligencer editor R. Barclay Spicer and journalist Samuel Duff McCoy on April 1 boarded the Cunard liner Aquitania for America.[1]”Going Home: American Relief Committee’s Tour of Inspection Finished”, Freeman’s Journal, March 28, 1921.

Simultaneously, the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland (ACCI) released a 152-page report based on its November 1920 through January 1921 hearings in Washington, D.C. The non-U.S. government panel interviewed three dozen Irish, English, and American witnesses, including the widow and sister of Irish hunger strike martyr Terence MacSwiney. The ACCI report concluded that “Imperial British forces” in Ireland had created a state of “terror” that deprived Irish citizen of legal and moral protection.

An image from the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland report.

The British Embassy in Washington immediately rebutted the ACCI report as “biased and wholly misleading.” The embassy statement said that Ireland, “so far from being a devastated country, is the most prosperous part of the United Kingdom, and probably the whole of Europe.”

The statement also insisted that “widespread misapprehension appears to exist in regard to the necessity of raising funds from United States sources for relief work in Ireland. … [though] … banking and tax returns show Ireland as a whole has never been more prosperous. … Apart from … genuine unemployment, common to all countries at the present moment, and … normal poverty … every case of distress and destitution is directly due to the effects of the Sinn Féin in Ireland.[2]Embassy statements quoted from “British Embassy Replies to Irish” and “British Call Ireland Never More Prosperous” in The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), April 1, 1921.

The ACRI responded with its own lengthy, at times, rambling, statement, which was reported in news stories and placed in paid advertising. [Bottom of post.] “Since its organization [in December 1920] our Committee has been closely in touch with conditions in Ireland, and the unit of workers in charitable relief, some of whom had experience in other war devastated countries, which our Committee sent to Ireland, has brought us closely in touch with this situation. From this unit [and other sources] … we unhesitatingly state that [the British Embassy statements are] inaccurate and unfounded.”[3]“To The American Public”, advert in the New York Herald, April 7, 1921.

Distress in Ireland

Original report linked in text.

McCoy released the ACRI delegation’s 14-page “Distress in Ireland” report on April 16 in New York. Many U.S. newspapers published an Associated Press story about its findings.

The delegation estimated that 25,000 families, or about 100,000 “men, women and children … are in pitiful need of instant help from the American people.” The report anticipated the skepticism of British and U.S. government officials, pro-British or anti-Sinn Féin journalists, and segments of the general public:

We are quite aware that the ordinary traveler through Ireland, going only by train, and not visiting two or three communities, would be unaware that any such degree of distress exists. From his train window he would see only green and fertile countryside, of immense agricultural wealth, and fully supporting its population. In towns he might visit he would see, in his casual walks through their busy streets, little that would lead him to believe that acute distress exists.

But if he looked beneath the surface, if he went from house to house, outside the beaten paths of travel, eliminating, though he might, all the distress from unemployment resulting from trade depression, and all the distress of the habitual mendicant class–he would still find in every little village that he entered two, three, or a half dozen families which had never before been in want and which, but for the fact that they had come face to face with starvation, would never let their need be guessed.[4]”Distress in Ireland”, p. 7.  

The delegation’s report estimated the damage to Irish homes, shops, factories, and creameries totaled $20 million, about $294 million a century later.[5]Per U.S. Inflation Calculator. It noted extensive damage to Ireland’s important agricultural sector, including 55 attacks on creameries.

“I wish to express my conviction that the creameries and their auxiliaries are the most important of all the immediate relief needs which the American people can help,” the report quoted Wilbur, the dairy farming expert who remained in Ireland.

McCoy concluded the report with a personal thought about British military reprisals on Irish residences. “As an individual,” he wrote, “I am entirely convinced that many of these people were entirely innocent of any complicity in the acts for which they were punished by having their homes burnt.”

Behind the scenes

Samuel D. McCoy

Five days after the report’s public release McCoy met in Washington with an executive assistant to U.S. Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes. McCoy proposed the American government help distribute the relief money for Ireland. He alleged the British had reneged on a promise to allow non-partisan relief to be distributed in Ireland. He suggested the State Department could allay British concerns about the partisanship of the Irish White Cross by supervising the relief in Ireland, as it had done in Belgium during the war.[6]Carroll, F. M. “The American Committee for Relief in Ireland, 1920-22.” Irish Historical Studies, vol. 23, no. 89, 1982, pp. 30-49. Whelan, Bernadette, United States Foreign Policy and Ireland: … Continue reading

Behind the scenes, forces had been quietly working against the ACRI before McCoy’s visit to the State Department. The U.S. consul in Dublin, Frederick T. F. Dumont, who had met the visiting ACRI delegation, sent several cables to Washington that suggested the group was being exploited by Sinn Féin operatives within the Irish White Cross. Other government insiders in Washington insisted the relief group was anti-British. The American Friends Services Committee and the American Red Cross backed off their earlier support of ACRI for the same reason.

Nevertheless, “the regular accounts in the newspapers, the findings of the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, and the statistics produced in the reports of the American Committee for Relief in Ireland and the Irish Write Cross provided persuasive evidence that there was a substantial measure of destruction and dislocation as the result of the fighting,” Carroll has noted.[7]Carroll, “ACRI, 1920-22”, p. 40. ACRI’s network of state committees continued the fundraising efforts launched during the week of St. Patrick’s Day. The campaign pushed forward, and the group continued to send money to the Irish White Cross.

New York Herald, April 7, 1921. Click to enlarge.

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This is the third post about the ACRI. Find previous stories in my American Reporting of Irish Independence centenary series. NEXT: “Relief quotas” will examine state fundraising goals, and how well each did. I’ll publish this installment in June. 

References

References
1 ”Going Home: American Relief Committee’s Tour of Inspection Finished”, Freeman’s Journal, March 28, 1921.
2 Embassy statements quoted from “British Embassy Replies to Irish” and “British Call Ireland Never More Prosperous” in The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), April 1, 1921.
3 “To The American Public”, advert in the New York Herald, April 7, 1921.
4 ”Distress in Ireland”, p. 7.
5 Per U.S. Inflation Calculator.
6 Carroll, F. M. “The American Committee for Relief in Ireland, 1920-22.” Irish Historical Studies, vol. 23, no. 89, 1982, pp. 30-49. Whelan, Bernadette, United States Foreign Policy and Ireland: From Empire to Independence, 1913-29, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2006, See Ch. 8, “Harding, Irish Relief Aid And Recognition”, pp. 326-327.
7 Carroll, “ACRI, 1920-22”, p. 40.

Catching up with modern Ireland: March

Two of the blog’s sharp-eyed email subscribers, both journalists, tipped me on two of the stories in this month’s roundup, which includes news about an old building in New York City, and a new building in Cork city. Enjoy. MH

  • For the second year, St. Patrick’s Day parades and related events were either cancelled, downsized, or made virtual due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. About 6,800 people have died in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland since the pandemic began a year ago.
  • New York Attorney General Letitia James has agreed to review the proposed sale of the American Irish Historical Society building in Manhattan. The 1901 Gilded Age mansion has been the society’s home for 80 years. The Irish government, which has given nearly $1 million to the society since 2008, has decried the proposed sale, and dozens of prominent artists and business leaders have joined nearly 30,000 others in petitioning James to step in. (Thanks Gary S.)

American Irish Historical Society at 991 Fifth Avenue. Photo: Tony Hisgett, Birmingham, UK.

  • Marty Walsh, the Irish-American mayor of Boston since 2014, was confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Biden administration. His parents were 1950s emigrants of County Galway.
  • Vicki Kennedy, widow of the late U.S. Sen. Edward (Ted) Kennedy (D-Mass.), is said to be on President Joe Biden’s short list for U.S. Ambassador to Ireland. Others include Chicago lawyer John Cooney, New York civil rights lawyer Brian O’Dwyer, former Ireland Fund Chairman John FitzPatrick,  Massachusetts state rep Clare Cronin, and former Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Tommy O’Neill, son of former House Speaker “Tip” O’Neill, according to IrishCentral.
  • Former U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd, a Biden ally earlier believed to be in line for the ambassador’s post, instead joined the Irish executive consultancy and lobbying firm Teneo as a senior adviser.
  • Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace agreement is under threat and a “Pandora’s box” of protest and political crisis will be opened unless the European Union agrees to significant changes in the Brexit deal with the United Kingdom, Reuters reported. At issue is a dispute over the implementation of the so-called Northern Ireland protocol in the Irish Sea, which is designed to prevent a hard land border with the Irish Republic. Militant unionists in the north complain the arrangement segregates them from the rest of the U.K..
  • The Journal.ie attempted to answer, “How would a united Ireland do economically?
  • The Republic announced “Our Rural Future, 2021-2025” plan, which calls for 20 percent of government employees to work remotely  or mixed city center and rural locations by December, with further decentralization in following years.
  • Old Ireland in Colour, a collection of 170 black and white photos colorized through a combination of cutting-edge artificial intelligence technology and old fashioned historical research, has been enjoying huge sales since its 2020 release. CNN and the Daily Mail published the latest features. (Thanks Bill T.)
  • Pope Francis elevated to International Marian and Eucharistic Shrine status the church and grounds at Knock, County Mayo, site of an 1879 apparition.
  • Technology firm Intel announced it will create 1,600 permanent high-tech jobs at its Leixlip campus in County Kildare.
  • Cork city officials and business leaders have applauded the decision by An Bord Pleanála, Ireland’s national planning review board, to grant permission for a 34-story hotel and commercial tower on the site of the former Port of Cork. It would become Ireland’s tallest building. An Taisce, Ireland’s national historic trust, complained it will create “enormous change in the character of the city’s skyline.”

Artist rending of Cork city tower.

American relief to Ireland, 1921

I am developing new projects, including future installments of my series about the American Committee for Relief in Ireland. Below are the first two posts in the Irish relief series; the next, “Distress in Ireland,” will publish in early April.

This image of the visiting group appeared in U.S. newspapers in February 1921, before and after the team sailed to Ireland. Walter Longstretch is not included.

Join my March 20 presentation on Cardinal Gibbons

UPDATE:

Thanks to those who attended the virtual event, and to the Irish Railroad Workers Museum, Baltimore, for the invitation. See my story about Cardinal Gibbons in the Catholic Review (Baltimore): Cardinal Gibbons, who died 100 years ago, was committed to Ireland

ORIGINAL POST:

James Gibbons was born in Baltimore in 1834 to Irish immigrants. The family moved back to County Mayo, where the future Cardinal Gibbons witnessed the Great Famine as a teen. On return to America, he regularly sent humanitarian aid to Ireland as he ascended the church hierarchy.

Cardinal Gibbons

Through most of his career, Cardinal Gibbons was circumspect about Ireland’s frequent bids for freedom from the British crown and London parliament. But from 1919 until his death, March 24, 1921, he supported several key American Irish efforts to help Ireland’s War of Independence. His speech at the Irish Race Convention in Philadelphia was “one of the most decisive steps of his life,” one contemporary said.

My “Cardinal Gibbons and Ireland” virtual presentation for the Irish Railroad Workers Museum (Baltimore) begins at 11 a.m. Eastern (3 p.m. Ireland), Saturday, March 20. Free registration here. (Link removed). You are very welcome to join us.

The cardinal’s photo on the front of The Gaelic America after his appearance at the February 1919 Irish Race Convention. (Click image to enlarge.)

Top 10 St. Patrick’s posts

Here are 10 of my favorite St. Patrick’s posts from the blog’s archives. Happy St. Patrick’s Day. MH.

    1. St. Patrick’s Day, 1921: ‘A Summons to Service’, 2021

    2. St. Patrick’s Day primary & JFK in 1960, 2020

    3. Old St. Patrick’s Church, Chicago, 2019

    4. From Downpatrick to Croagh Patrick, 2019

    5. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City, 2018

    6. St. Patrick’s Church, Harrisburg, Pa., 2017

    7. The troubled foundation of St. Patrick’s in Rome, 1888, 2017

    8. Mass at St. Patrick’s Church, Belfast, 2016

    9. A simpler St. Patrick’s Day wish, 1953, 2015

    10. Old St. Patrick’s Church, Pittsburgh, 2013

St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., the “Federal City.” Note the first priest came from Dublin at suggestion of Kilkenny-born James Hoban, who designed the White House, or “presidential palace.”

St. Patrick’s Day, 1921: ‘A Summons to Service’

The American Committee for Relief in Ireland (ACRI) timed the official launch of its $10 million fundraising campaign to coincide with St. Patrick’s Day, 1921. The committee bought newspaper advertising and released a 16-page booklet titled, A Summons to Service from the Women and Children of Ireland. It opened:

Day after day you read with fainting heart the desolation that is gripping Ireland. You know that what you read is but half the story. The destruction of creameries and factories, the firing of homes, the laying waste of cities, these are the tragic symbols of a greater and unrecorded horror that is taking its toll from among the innocent who have not part in political or religious conflicts.  …

This is not an “appeal.” It is rather a summons to Americans to join wholeheartedly in an enterprise of mercy. Never has such a summons failed. In full confidence that your response will be as prompt and generous as the need is urgent, we come to you on behalf of those who are looking to America for life itself.

Some ACRI advertising did use the word “appeal,” as seen here from the March 13, 1921, edition of The Times Dispatch of Richmond, Virginia:

The Summons to Service booklet featured 11 black and white photos of war-related devastation in Ireland, including Athlone, Balbriggan, Mallow, and Templemore. It highlighted testimony from several of the 38 witnesses at the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland (ACCI) hearings in Washington, D.C., from November 1920 to January 1921. The ACCI report, released in late March 1921, accused the British government of a “campaign for the destruction of the means of existence of the Irish people … [that resulted] in wide-spread and acute suffering among women and children.”1

Counter narrative

There were counter narratives about conditions in Ireland. Liverpool-born journalist Cyril Herbert Bretherton, The Irish Times‘ correspondent to the Philadelphia Public Ledger and its affiliated U.S. papers, charged that ACRI supporters “continue to send to America lurid tales of Irish distress.” He disputed reports from the ACRI investigative team in Ireland that 200,000 civilians were “in dire need” and insisted that “there are not in all Ireland 500 people in that condition.” Likewise, he said property damage in Ireland, estimated at $300 million by the ACRI team, “does not amount to one-tenth that sum.”2

Clemens France, leader of the ACRI delegation in Ireland since mid-February, quickly cabled New York headquarters with a statement released to U.S. newspapers. France charged that Bretherton “has deliberately ignored facts which any unbiased journalist can obtain and which are known to crown authorities.” France also said that Bretherton’s four-part series in the Times “obviously sought to persuade our unit that no relief need exists in Ireland, and since he failed in this absurd attempt he is apparently attempting to influence opinion in America.”3

As these disputes unspooled in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, the ACRI and its network of state committees began collecting cash and other pledges for Ireland. The Summons to Service booklet encouraged $1 to $15 donations, with checks payable to the Emigrants’ Industrial Savings Bank in New York, founded during the Great Famine by the Irish Emigrant Society.

Supportive statements

Cardinal Gibbons

Public statements by several prominent figures bolstered the ACRI effort, including James Cardinal Gibbons, the most senior Catholic prelate in the United States. He was more sensitive to suffering in Ireland than most Americans. Born in Baltimore to Irish immigrants, his family moved back to Mayo before the famine, which he witnessed during his teen years, before returning to America.

In a statement issued two weeks before his death, Gibbons said:

I earnestly beg all kind hearted and generous Americans to contribute to the fund for the relief of the many thousands now suffering want in Ireland. … The whole Catholic church of America is most deeply indebted to the Irish people. It is not too much to expect that in every parish of our land effective means be taken to collect funds for the relief of the suffering in Ireland.

President Harding

President Warren G. Harding, inaugurated at the beginning of March 1921, also issued a statement: “The people of America never will be deaf to the call for relief in behalf of suffering humanity” in Ireland.4

Now, a year after the U.S. launch of a bond drive to support the separatist Dáil Éireann government in Dublin,  another fundraising campaign for Ireland was fully engaged in America.

***

This is the second of several articles about the ACRI. Find the previous story, “American investigators visit Ireland”, in my American Reporting of Irish Independence centenary series. NEXT: “Distress in Ireland.” The ACRI investigative team returns home from Ireland and releases its report. I’ll post this installment in mid-April.

This advert in the March 17, 1921, edition of the New York Tribune appeared in at least three other New York papers on the same day.

Irish Americans back united Ireland with ad buy

I don’t usually pay much attention to advertisements as I scan the headlines and top paragraphs of The Washington Post, the day’s first pot of coffee percolating near the left edge of the newspaper spread on my kitchen counter. The half-page ad on A5–my second page turn–caught my attention: A United Ireland: Let The People Have Their Say.

Friends of Sinn Féin USA and five other Irish-American groups paid for the black and white ads in the March 10 issues of the Post and The New York Times a week before St. Patrick’s Day focuses on relations between the two countries. Full-page with spot color versions of the ads appear in the Irish Voice and Irish Echo newspapers. The ad says, in part:

A new Ireland is emerging, and more and more people are looking beyond the divisions of the past. A new Ireland is seeking to undo the damage of the undemocratic partition of Ireland 100 years ago and the recent British government imposed Brexit.

“Britain’s exit”, or Brexit, was decided by a 2016 referendum. Voters in the six counties of Northern Ireland opposed leaving the European Union. The British and E.U. governments, including the Republic of Ireland, spent years hammering out the details of the departure.

Earlier this month, the Post published a Bloomberg business analysis that said while a united Ireland is “unlikely anytime soon … the fact that the possibility is being openly discussed again is testament to the forces unleashed by Brexit.”

We’ve been hearing this since 2016. Nearly two years ago to the day, Times columnist Timothy Egan, also citing Brexit, wrote: “From the depths of British bungling, hubris and incompetence is emerging a St. Patrick’s Day miracle: the real chance of a united Ireland.”

Let’s see what happens by St. Patrick’s Day, 2022.

U.S.-Irish relations at St. Patrick’s Day, updated

U.S President Joe Biden this week issued the annual proclamation to declare March as Irish-American Heritage Month. “As I said when I visited Dublin in 2016, our nations have always shared a deep spark — linked in memory and imagination, joined by our histories and our futures,” he says. Due to lingering concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, however, this year’s St. Patrick’s Day meeting in Washington, D.C. between U.S. and Irish leaders will be a virtual affair, The Irish Times reports.

In 2016 I wrote a five-part series on U.S.- Irish relations at St. Patrick’s Day leading up to the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. I explored 1916 and 25 year increments afterward: 1941, 1966, and 1991, plus a post about St. Patrick’s Day 1976, the year of the American bicentennial. Here are short descriptions of the series with links to the original posts:

Part 1: St. Patrick’s Day 1916 arrived in the second year of the Great War and a month before the Easter Rising. President Woodrow Wilson wore “a bright green necktie and a little shamrock fresh from the ‘ould sod,’ a present from  John Redmond, the Irish nationalist leader,” The Washington Post reported.

Iconic image of the General Post Office in Dublin after the 1916 Easter Rising.

Part 2: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not recognize St. Patrick’s Day 1941 with any Irish guests or events. As war raged in Europe, Irish leader Éamon de Valera said in a radio address broadcast on both side of the Atlantic: “A small country like ours that had for centuries resisted imperial absorption, and that still wished to preserve its separate national identity, was bound to choose the course of neutrality in this war.”

Part 3: In 1966, the 50th anniversary of the Rising, President Lyndon B. Johnson welcomed Ambassador of Ireland H.E. William Fay and Mrs. Fay to the Oval Office. The official record says Johnson was presented with “fresh shamrocks [redacted] flown in from Ireland.” It appears that two words are blacked out between “shamrocks” and “flown.” My guess: “and whiskey.”

Part 4: On St. Patrick’s Day 1976, President Gerald Ford expressed “the appreciation of the American people to the people of Ireland” for their participation in the founding and growth of the United States. He welcomed Taoiseach Liam M. Cosgrave. They also talked about The Troubles.

Liam Cosgrave pins a shamrock to the lapel of Gerald Ford in 1976.

Part 5: St. Patrick’s Day 1991 came some 20 years into the Troubles, and the Irish Republic was taking a cautious approach to the upcoming 75th anniversary of the Rising. “Officials say at a time when talks are soon to open over the future of Northern Ireland, they do not want to be seen celebrating an event that could be exploited by the outlawed Irish Republican Army as justification for its own violent campaign to oust British rule from the province,” The Washington Post reported.

Shortly after St. Patrick’s Day, 2016, President Barack Obama described Ireland’s 1916 Proclamation as “a vision statement 100 years ago, and it would be a visionary statement today. It’s a universal value, like the ones in America’s own founding documents, that compels us to continually look forward; that gives us the chance to change; that dares us, American and Irish alike, to keep toiling towards our better selves.”

Guest post: Kennedy and Parnell, lost leaders

I am pleased to welcome back Dublin-based historian Felix M. Larkin, who has contributed an essay – entitled “Judging Kennedy” – to a new volume From whence I came: The Kennedy Legacy, Ireland and America, edited by Brian Murphy and Donnacha Ó Beacháin (Irish Academic Press). The 15 essays in the collection had their origin in papers given at the Kennedy Summer School, held annually in New Ross, Co. Wexford, since 2012 (though not in 2020, because of the pandemic). New Ross is the small port from whence John F. Kennedy’s great-grandfather left Ireland. The title of the volume is taken from Kennedy’s speech in nearby Wexford town during his June 1963 visit to Ireland. An adaptation of part of Larkin’s chapter follows below.

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Charles Stewart Parnell

In reading, thinking and writing about Kennedy over many years, I have often been struck by the parallel between his death and that of the great nineteenth-century Irish constitutional nationalist leader, Charles Stewart Parnell. Though Parnell was not the victim of an assassin, he was hounded to his death by his enemies and the shadow that his death cast – memorably captured in the writings of James Joyce and W.B. Yeats – had an effect similar to that of Kennedy’s, albeit on a narrower canvas. Parnell and Kennedy have thus become part of the mythologies, as well as part of the history, of their respective countries. Parnell’s idealization by Joyce and Yeats is the Irish equivalent of the characterization of the Kennedy presidency as “Camelot on the Potomac”.

There are many other correspondences in the lives of these two remarkable men: 

  • both were young leaders – Parnell was 45 when he died, Kennedy was 46; 
  • whereas Kennedy had Irish ancestors, Parnell had an American mother;
  • Kennedy was a Catholic leader in a predominantly Protestant country, while Parnell was a Protestant leader in a predominantly Catholic country;
  • Parnell made a triumphant visit to the US in 1880, and Kennedy came to Ireland in June 1963; and
  • the sense of possibility in Kennedy’s vision of the “New Frontier” chimes with Parnell’s assertion that “no man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation”.[1]
       

John F. Kennedy

Parnell and Kennedy are good examples of the “lost leader” syndrome, great men cut down in their prime whose reputations are more enduring than those of their contemporaries who lived on to make a more substantial contribution to their country’s fortunes. As Stephen Collins, the Irish Times journalist, has suggested, lost leaders are remembered with such fascination and admiration precisely because they “have not had to govern for long, if at all, and so don’t get sucked into the messy compromises that are the inevitable fate of long-serving politicians entrusted with the thankless task of government”.[2]

Surprisingly, there is some evidence that Parnell may have influenced Kennedy’s style and mode of operation as a political leader. Robert Dallek records that Kennedy “was conversant with Irish leader Charles [Stewart] Parnell’s counsel: Get the advice of everybody whose advice is worth having – they are very few – and then do what you think best yourself”.[3] Moreover, Kennedy referred to Parnell in his speech to the Irish parliament during his visit to Ireland in 1963. He first mentioned the fact that he had in his office – the Oval Office – the sword of Commodore John Barry, the founder of the American navy, who was born in County Wexford. He then went on to note: 

Yesterday [27 June 1963] was the 117th anniversary of the birth of Charles Stewart Parnell, whose grandfather fought under Barry and whose mother was born in America, and who, at the age of 34, was invited to address the American Congress on the cause of Irish freedom. “I have seen since I have been in this country”, he said, “so many tokens of the good wishes of the American people towards Ireland”. And today, 83 years later, I can say to you that I have seen in this country so many tokens of good wishes of the Irish people towards America.[4

Kennedy’s grave, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va.

Parnell’s grandfather and namesake was Admiral Charles Stewart, commander of the USS Constitution during the War of 1812, and Kennedy had on his desk in the Oval Office two bookends with brass replicas of cannons on the USS Constitution and on the walls flanking the fireplace in the office were pictures of the famous naval engagement between the Constitution and the British frigate Guerriere. A model of the Constitution was displayed on the mantelpiece above the fireplace, and when Kennedy met Krushchev in Vienna in June 1961, he presented the Soviet leader with another model of the ship – perhaps as a gentle reminder of the power of the U.S. Navy. 

Parnell’s grave, Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.

The USS Constitution (nicknamed ‘Old Ironsides’) is now a tourist attraction in Boston Harbor, in the city that was Kennedy’s political base from 1946 when he was first elected to the US House of Representatives. Admiral Charles Stewart’s magnificent desk is among the exhibits in Avondale House, the ancestral home of the Parnells in county Wicklow.

See Larkin’s “The Slow Death of the Freeman’s Journal”, October 2019, and other essays from our guest contributors. Consider offering a proposal through the provided form, or message me at @markaholan

[1]For Parnell’s speech in which these lines occur, see Pauric Travers, ‘The march of the nation: Parnell’s ne plus ultra speech’ in Pauric Travers and Donal McCartney (eds), Parnell reconsidered (Dublin: UCD Press, 2013), pp. 179-96.

[2]Stephen Collins, ‘Romantic Ireland lives on in our fascination with the leaders who left us too young’, Irish Times, 3 August 2013.

[3]Robert Dallek, Camelot’s court: inside the Kennedy White House (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), p. 35. Parnell’s words here are as recorded in William O’Brien, An olive branch in Ireland and its history (London: Macmillan, 1910), p. 47. They were quoted by Conor Cruise O’Brien in his Parnell and his party (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957), p. 145, n. 1.

[4] Speech to the joint session of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann, 28 June 1963.