Dev’s last visit ‘home’ to USA; Ireland’s ‘cruel partition’

Irish President Éamon de Valera made a state visit to the United States in May 1964 that bookended U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s trip to Ireland 11 months earlier. Kennedy was 46 when he set foot on Irish soil for the fifth time, the first time as U.S. leader. He was assassinated five months later in Dallas. De Valera was 81 when he made his sixth journey to America, his second U.S. trip in six months. He died in 1975, aged 92.

“This is the country of your birth, Mr. President. This will always be your home,” U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson reminded de Valera during a welcome ceremony on the South Portico of the White House. “You belong to us, Mr. President, just as in a very special way John F. Kennedy belonged to you.”

De Valera was born in New York City in October 1882. Two years later, following his father’s death, an uncle escorted him to Ireland, where he was raised by his mother’s family in County Limerick. His return trips to America included:

  • June 1919-December 1920, as Ireland’s revolutionary “president.”
  • December 1927-February 1928, as opposition leader to raise money for his newspaper.
  • December 1929-May 1930, again to raise money for The Irish Press.
  • March 1948, part of his anti-partition tour.
  • November 1963, for Kennedy’s funeral.
  • May 1964, official state visit.

See three related lists at bottom of post.

Johnson gifted de Valera with a copy of journalist William V. Shannon’s new book, The American Irish. In what must rank among the most ill-timed releases in publishing history, the book’s concluding chapter about Kennedy had been published and distributed just before the assassination.[1]“Always Welcome To U.S.: Johnson’s Warm Greeting To De Valera”, The Cork Examiner, May 28, 1964. Also mentioned in The Irish Press and The Irish Independent.

Shannon, a Washington correspondent for the New York Post, wrote that Kennedy’s “winning of the presidency culminated and consolidated more than a century of Irish political activity.” It wiped away the bitterness and disappointment of Al Smith’s 1928 defeat as the first Irish American Catholic presidential nominee and “removed any lingering sense of social inferiority and insecurity” from Famine immigrants and their offspring, too long caricatured as ditch-diggers and domestics.

If de Valera read the book, or just checked the index, he would have seen that he was not included in this story of the Irish in America. Ireland’s early twentieth century revolutionary period is barely mentioned. Shannon later became U.S. ambassador to Ireland during the Carter administration, two years after de Valera’s death.

There were plenty of press compliments for de Valera. Syndicated columnist Max Freedman declared him “one of the supreme figures of our age. … invulnerable to criticism, implacable in defeat, imperturbable in victory, and immortal in the perspectives of history.”[2]”De Valera Holds High Place In History’, The Salt Lake (Utah) Tribune, May 25, 1964. Freedman was a Canadian journalist.

‘First’ ladies man: Éamon de Valera greeted Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of the slain president, during his May 1964 visit, above. They had written to each other since the assassination. Dev also escorted Lady Bird Johnson to a state dinner, below. President Johnson is to his left.

In 1964, De Valera delivered a 20-minute address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. An Irish radio broadcaster observed that members of the U.S. House and Senate, hardly known for their youth, seemed incredulous to hear the octogenarian recall his 1919 visit. De Valera spoke without written remarks or a teleprompter.

“I would like to confess freely that this is an outstanding day of my own life,” he told the assembly. “To see recognized as I have the rights of the Irish people and the independence of the Irish people in a way that was not at all possible 45 years ago. I have longed to come back and say this too you.”

But de Valera lamented the “cruel partition” of the island, in place since 1920. He mused that a future Irish leader would “joyfully announce that our severed county has been reunited” and that all enmity between the British and Irish people has been removed. Listen to the full speech.

Anglo-Irish relations are not as bad today as during the Troubles, which began soon after de Valera’s speech to Congress. But 60 years later the border remains in place. Now, the partition debate is further complicated by Brexit and immigration disputes.

JFK’s visits to Ireland:[3]This chart has been revised since the original post. There is conflicting information about JFK’s stops in Ireland, with one source suggesting he made six visits.

  • 1939, a brief stopover at Foynes.
  • 1945, after his service in World War II, and interviewed de Valera for the New York Journal-American.
  • 1947, visited his sister Kathleen, who was staying at Lismore Castle.
  • 1955, as U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, and met with Irish T.D. Liam Cosgrave.
  • June 1963, as president on an official state visit.

Irish leaders who addressed the U.S. Congress:

  • Feb. 2, 1880, Charles Stewart Parnell, Member of Parliament, (U.S. House)
  • Jan. 25, 1928, William T. Cosgrave, President of Executive Council, (U.S. House)
  • March 15, 1956, John A. Costello, Prime Minister, (U.S. Senate)
  • March 18, 1959, John T. O’Kelly, President, (Joint session)
  • May 28, 1964, Éamon de Valera, President, (Joint session)
  • Jan. 28, 1976, Liam Cosgrave, Prime Minister, (Joint session)
  • March 15, 1984, Dr. Garrett FitzGerald, Prime Minister, (Joint session)
  • Sept. 11, 1996, John Bruton, Prime Minister, (Joint session)
  • April 30, 2008, Bertie Ahearn, Prime Minister, (Joint session)

U.S. leaders who addressed the Irish Oireachtas:

  • May 9, 1919, Frank Walsh, Edward Dunne, and Michael Ryan as the American Commission on Irish Independence, (1st Dáil). The commission was the creation of Irish activists in America, not a body of the U.S. government. The three commissioners were not elected.
  • June 28, 1963, John F. Kennedy, President, (Joint session)
  • June 4, 1984, Ronald Reagan, President, (Joint session)
  • Dec. 1, 1995, Bill Clinton, President, (Joint session)
  • April 13, 2023, Joe Biden, President, (Joint session)

Of course, other Irish leaders have visited America, notably at St. Patrick’s Day, and other American presidents have visited Ireland, without addressing the welcoming country’s national legislature.

References

References
1 “Always Welcome To U.S.: Johnson’s Warm Greeting To De Valera”, The Cork Examiner, May 28, 1964. Also mentioned in The Irish Press and The Irish Independent.
2 ”De Valera Holds High Place In History’, The Salt Lake (Utah) Tribune, May 25, 1964. Freedman was a Canadian journalist.
3 This chart has been revised since the original post. There is conflicting information about JFK’s stops in Ireland, with one source suggesting he made six visits.

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