Irish-American Catholic Joe Biden’s victory as U.S. president recalls the historic election of Irish-American Catholic John Fitzgerald Kennedy 60 years ago. I couldn’t resist a nostalgic look back to November 1960:
“In many Irish homes people stayed up late on Tuesday to get the early results, and tens of thousands were at their television sets from 6 a.m. on Wednesday to follow the count,” Derry People reported.1 Irish people and Irish papers also coped with tragic news from beyond the island: “Rejoicing throughout the country [at Kennedy’s success] was turned to gloom … when news came over the radio that a patrol of 11 Irish soldiers, serving with the United Nations’ force in the Congo, had been ambushed by Baluba tribesmen and that 10 of them were feared dead.”2
The Irish Examiner editorialized that Kennedy’s election was received “with gratification” and:
… hailed as a victory for Irish blood and the old faith, but others saw in it the culmination of the battle for recognition of the descendants of this land, from the generation which took part in the great diaspora of our race after the famine years. Their fight has been a hard one but eventually they gained admission to the councils of their adopted country only to be denied the supreme honor. Senator Kennedy is the symbol of that victory.3
Kennedy had visited Ireland three times before he was elected president: in 1939 with his father, then U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain Joseph P. Kennedy; in 1945 after his service in World War II, when he interviewed Taoiseach Éamon de Valera for the New York Journal-American; and in 1955, as U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, when he met with T.D. Liam Cosgrave.
“We should like to think that during his term of office he will visit again the land of his forebears,” wished the Evening Herald, Dublin.4 Kennedy did return to Ireland in June 1963, a triumphal, multi-stop visit overshadowed five months later by his assassination in Dallas.
Kennedy’s election came 32 years after anti-Catholic bias was used to help defeat New York Gov. Al Smith’s campaign for the presidency. The issue of religious prejudice resonated in 1960 Northern Ireland, a decade before the Troubles, as editorialize by Derry People:
By the election of Senator John F. Kennedy as next President of the United States a bigoted and vengeful tradition has come to an end, the voters showing that they will no longer accept that a Catholic candidate must be denied the highest office is his country’s gift. … Here in Ireland there is rejoicing at the result. It is indeed a wonderful thing that the great-grandson of a poor Irish farmer, one of the millions of victims of the artificial Famine in this land, has ascended to the highest post, which a layman can occupy in the world today. …
We are not at all reluctant to point the moral of the Catholic candidate’s success, and as we see it, Senator Kennedy’s victory shows what can be done for truth and justice if decent people unite against bigotry and spleen. Let our readers reflect that if Senator Kennedy were today an applicant in these Six Counties for appointment as a consultant physician, the higher civil service, a county surveyorship, a clerk of the Crown and Peace or any of the other top jobs, he would not be successful. The truth is that the distinguished young man who today is America’s President-Elect would be voted down, as a Catholic if he dared to stand for the Mayoralty of Derry.5
Kennedy never mentioned his Catholic faith in his 1963 address to the Dáil. He acknowledged Ireland’s many contributions to the United States and its contemporary work at the United Nations, including, by then, the deaths of 26 peacekeeping troops in the Congo.
And Kennedy humorously noted the irony of how he was the first American president to visit Ireland during a term of office, while the American-born de Valera (who tried to influence the 1920 U.S. presidential election) watched in the chamber as the president of Ireland.
“I am deeply honored to be your guest in a Free Parliament in a free Ireland,” Kennedy said. “If this nation had achieved its present political and economic stature a century or so ago, my great grandfather might never have left New Ross, and I might, if fortunate, be sitting down there with you. Of course if your own President had never left Brooklyn, he might be standing up here instead of me.”
Earlier posts on Kennedy’s 1960 campaign for U.S. president: