Tag Archives: Al Smith

JFK’s 1960 presidential nomination at 60

Sixty years ago U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts became the second Irish-American Catholic nominated for president. New York Gov. Al Smith was the first in 1928. Both were Democrats. Smith lost to Herbert Hoover. Kennedy would go on to beat Richard Nixon.

The Democrat’s 1960 national convention was staged July 11-15 in Los Angeles. In an explanatory preview, The Irish Press of Dublin described the U.S. presidential nomination and party policy process, its ardfheis, as “the most spectacular free show on the American continent.” These conventions were “the nearest approach to a parliamentary type of government that the American political system allows.”1

Kennedy’s nomination was front-page news across the nation and around the world. The host city Los Angeles Times reported the next morning:

John Fitzgerald Kennedy of Massachusetts, who at 43 knew what he wanted and went after it, last night was acclaimed Democratic candidate for President of the United States. His self-predicted victory was clinched 45 minutes after the first balloting began … Kennedy is the second American of the Roman Catholic religion to win presidential nomination by a majority party, and, if the luck of the Irish that attended him July 13 continues through Nov. 8, he would be the youngest U.S. president ever elected.”2

John F. Kennedy delivers his July 1960 nomination acceptance speech. Watch the 22-minute speech.

A few days later in Ireland, the Sunday Independent published a front page “exclusive” on Kennedy’s reply to its request for a “special statement” about his nomination. Kennedy answered:

I am most grateful for the many messages of goodwill and friendship which I have received from Ireland since my nomination. … I am confident that a Democratic Party victory in November will offer us all an opportunity and occasion to break new ground in our common search for peace. In this effort Ireland will unquestionably play an important role … especially by its unique and influential place in the United Nations. … The association between Ireland and USA is an enduring one. In my own public career I have always been impressed by the many unities which exist between the living tradition of Ireland and the ideal of our own democracy. … I am heartened by the generous hope and high resolves which have been conveyed to me from Ireland.3

Liam Cosgrave, 1974

The Independent also featured a guest column by Liam Cosgrave, TD, who said he first met Kennedy in 1955 in Dublin, and again the following year in Washington, D.C. “He impressed me by his lack of pretense and by his direct approach,” Cosgrave wrote. He continued:

I was much taken by his easy, relaxed manner, which was devoid of showmanship of any kind, and also by his sense of humor, so characteristic of an American with Irish antecedents. … Kennedy is shrewd, capable and determined and has employed all these attributes in his carefully planned and efficiently conducted campaign for nomination. … [He] is a worthy inheritor of a great Catholic tradition brought to America by his Irish ancestors. … His achievements may yet add another page to the glorious history of America and to the distinguished part played in that history by men and women of Irish descent.4

Six years later — three years after Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas — Cosgrave was interviewed in Limerick for a John F. Kennedy Library oral history project. Read the transcript.

Previous posts about JFK:

St. Patrick’s Day primary & JFK in 1960

UPDATE:

Here’s the headline I expected to see: Joe Biden Wins Big in St. Patrick’s Day Democratic Primaries. The former vice-president had convincing victories in Florida, Illinois, and Arizona.

ORIGINAL POST:

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Illinois, Florida, and Arizona will hold Democratic presidential primaries on St. Patrick’s Day, a rare political event now overshadowed by the global health crisis. Ohio, which also had a scheduled March 17 primary, has postponed until June 2.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who frequently boasts of his Irish heritage, is poised to gather more delegates in his march to the nomination. The remainder of the primary schedule, and both party’s national conventions this summer, now seem in jeopardy.

U.S. elections are held on Tuesdays based on 19th century reasoning to avoid the Sunday sabbath and Wednesday agricultural market days. The party primary system was created shortly before World War I. In presidential election years since then, St. Patrick’s Day first fell on a Tuesday in 1936, but there was no primary. Republicans and Democrats took a break between the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary earlier in March, and the Wisconsin primary in April.

The same happened in 1964, the next time St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Tuesday of a presidential election cycle. Four years earlier, Irish-American U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts won the New Hampshire primary on March 8, 1960,  with 85 percent of the vote, the balance split among three fringe or protest candidates. In the Republican primary, then-Vice President Richard Nixon won nearly 90 percent of the vote, with 3 percent writing in Kennedy’s name. The next primary was April 5, 1960, in Wisconsin.

Eight days after Kennedy’s New Hampshire victory, the Associated Press released a St. Patrick’s Day photo of him widely published in U.S. newspapers. JFK was not the first Irish American Catholic to run for the nation’s highest office, (Al Smith, 1928), but he became the first to win.

The first and only previous St. Patrick’s Day presidential primary was in 1992, when Illinois and Michigan each held nominating contests. President George H.W. Bush carried two thirds of the GOP vote in both states over former Nixon speech writer Pat Buchanan. For the Democrats, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton won slim majorities in a crowded field in both contests.

Clinton defeated the incumbent Bush in November 1992. The new president become a great friend of Ireland, contributing to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement during his second term.

Chicago magazine tells the story of the 1970 Illinois primary that forced bars and pubs to close on St. Patrick’s Day because of an early 20th century law–since repealed–designed to keep politicians from buying votes.

St. Patrick’s Day in America, 1920: Politics and poetry

The Irish War of Independence had grow increasingly violent by St. Patrick’s Day, 1920. In America, Sinn Féin leader Éamon de Valera continued his effort to raise money and political support for the Irish cause. His St. Patrick’s Day message was quoted in many U.S. newspapers. It said, in part:

Sons and Daughters of the Gael, wherever you be today, in the name of the Motherland, greeting! … Never before have the scattered children of Eire had such an opportunity for noble service. Today you can serve not only Ireland, but the world. … Those of our race who are citizens of this mighty land of America, whose thought will help to mould the policy of the leader among Nations–how much the world looks to you this St. Patrick’s Day–hopes in you–trusts in you. You can so easily accomplish that which is needed. You have only to have the will–the way is so clear. What would not the people in the old land give for the power which is yours!1

Éamon de Valera

New York City’s Irish community “answered the call to arms” in de Valera’s message “by throwing the greatest parade in the history of a city that held its first in 1766.”2 The Irish leader attended the March 17 Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, celebrated by Archbishop Patrick Hayes, who was appointed to the post a year earlier. Both men were seated together at the parade reviewing stand in front of the landmark church, along with New York City Mayor John F. Hylan and New York State Gov. Al Smith.

By odd coincidence, considering the Irish visitor, all four of these honorary parade-goers were New York natives. De Valera was born in the city in 1882 to a Irish immigrant mother and a Spanish father, who died three years later. The toddler was sent to Ireland to be raised in County Limerick by his relatives.

Any small talk about their shared birthplace, however, was secondary to the simmering tensions between de Valera and the American-based Friends of Irish Freedom, which was led by Gaelic American newspaper editor John Devoy and New York Supreme Court Judge Daniel F. Cohalan. At issue were disputes over control of the money being collected for Ireland and the efforts to influence American political leaders and U.S. policy.

None of this was on public view for the big day. As Hannigan writes:

At the end of St. Patrick’s Day, when Ireland held the city in its thrall, the impression may have been that the various combatants had put aside their personal grievances for the greater good. Though de Valera and Cohalan were at the same dinner by evening’s end with the appearance all was well, the truth was much different. The two men seemed to picture of professionalism that night, the politicking, scheming and plotting continued backstage. It would come to a boil very soon.”3

***

For St. Patrick’s Day 1920, Denis Aloysius McCarthy released a poem that emphasized the historic connections between Ireland and America, especially in the struggle for freedom. Like de Valera’s message, “St. Patrick’s Day” also was circulated in U.S. papers.4 It including these stanzas:

When America first uprose
And flung defiance at her foes
No laggards were the Irish then
In purse or purpose, means or men.

And ever since in all our wars,
Wherever gleamed the Stripes and Stars,
The loyal Irish, heart and hand,
Have fought for this beloved land.

So in the springtime of the year
When St. Patrick’s Day again is here,
T’is not alone on Irish breasts
The spray of Ireland’s shamrocks rests.

Our great Republic’s heart
Reveals today its tend’rer part,
As, smiling in her state serene,
She wears a touch of Ireland’s green.

Denis A. McCarthy

This poem should not confused with McCarthy’s “St. Patrick’s Day Memories” , from his 1906 collection, Voices From Erin.

The poet and journalist emigrated from Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary, to America in 1886. He eventually settled in Boston. The Boston Globe did not mention him as having strong feelings about Irish independence in its August 1931 news obituary.

Pittsburgh Ancient Order of Hibernians records available for review

A large trove of records from Pittsburgh area divisions of the Ancient Order of Hibernians are now available for viewing at the Senator John Heinz History Center. The Irish-Catholic fraternal organization was founded in 1836 to fight anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice.

During a recent visit to the Heinz Center I was able to find meeting minutes recording the 1914 acceptance and induction of my grandfather, Willie Diggins, into the AOH. He joined Division 15 in the city’s Hazelwood section nine months after his emigration from Kerry. The record states:

The application of Wm Diggins, age 20 years of 63 Almeda St. was reported favorable. The ballot being found favorable the candidate was duly elected.

I also read the group’s June 26, 1921, discussion about “the critical situation in Irish affairs.” Division 15 membership opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty “in which the leaders in Ireland were apparently being jockeyed into negotiations which could not end in anything more than a compromise and a sacrifice of the time-honored principals of a united and independent Ireland.”

AOH shield

There is a critical gap in the Division 15 meeting minutes from 1925 to 1935. This period would have included the group’s discussion of the 1928 candidacy of Al Smith, the nation’s first Irish-Catholic presidential nominee, as well as potential details about my grandfather’s February 1935 streetcar accident.

Separate membership dues ledgers show that Willie made his last $1 monthly payment to the organization about the time of the accident. He was “dropped” from the group on July 1, 1935, after 22 years of membership. He was $15 in arrears.

Willie’s failure to continue paying membership dues after his streetcar accident suggests he might not have received any support from the group, which helped members in times of hardship. Other ethnic associations provided similar benefits to their members. With a wife and six daughters to support on his streetcar motorman’s salary, Willie’s money was tight and his family ranked as a higher priority than the AOH.

As the Great Depression lingered, other AOH members nationwide also were drifting from the organization, according to Jay P. Dolan in his book, “The Irish Americans: A History.” By 1935, U.S. circulation of the National Hibernian magazine declined by nearly two thirds of its pre-Depression readership. The fervor of Irish nationalism waned more than a decade after the revolutionary period of 1913-1923.

By the mid-1930s the Irish community and the Catholic Church had recovered from the prejudice and indignities of Smith’s 1928 election defeat. As a demographic group and as individuals they asserted their place in America as the country trudged through the economic downturn and soon marched into World War II.

Willie died 10 days after the Pearl Harbor attack, a month before his 48th birthday. A few weeks later Division 15 of the AOH passed a motion endorsing President Roosevelt and agreeing to purchase defense bonds to support the war effort.