Tag Archives: Boston

Did JFK want to ‘get even’ for Boston’s anti-Irish Catholic bias?

In February 1960, a month after John F. Kennedy announced for the U.S. presidency, a syndicated newspaper columnist suggested the campaign was prompted by his family’s desire to “get even” for decades of prejudice against them.

“Get even … is a hard phrase to explain,” Edwin A. Lahey, chief correspondent for Knight Newspapers, wrote in a dispatch from the campaign trail in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He continued:

But basically it means that any ambitious man from Boston with Irish forebears needs spiritual compensation for the humiliating experiences of his grandparents, who suffered social ostracism and economic discrimination at the hands of the Boston Brahmins.  … Unless you have an Irish Catholic background, and have seen the Boston mind in operation, you cannot understand the full nuances of the phrase which describes a Boston Irishman’s success and distinction as a means of ‘getting even.’

Lahey was no slapdash columnist. In 1939, he joined the inaugural class of the Neiman Fellows at Harvard University. He became Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Daily News, then moved over to a similar post with the Knight chain.1

Lahey based the “get even” notion in his column on a just-published book, The Remarkable Kennedys, by Boston journalist Joe McCarthy. The 190-page work is a profile of the family, especially the candidate and his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., a business tycoon and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom just before World War II. McCarthy wrote:

Where does the Kennedy drive come from? Most probably it stems originally from the chafing, frustrating atmosphere of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice in Boston fifty years ago that made the young Joe Kennedy determined to push himself and his children to a place at the top of the world where they would not have to take a back seat to anybody.2

McCarthy (1916-1980) was born to 1890s Irish immigrant parents3 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, across the Charles River from Boston, a year before JFK’s birth. After graduating from Boston College, McCarthy began a newspaper reporting and magazine editing career that included producing an overview of Ireland for Time-Life.4 

Book advert in The Boston Globe, Feb. 28, 1960.

A profile of McCarthy based on the release of The Remarkable Kennedys colorfully described him as “a tall, slightly stooped, gray-haired man in his middle 40’s” who “lumbered” across the room and “slowly rummaged through a tiny pile of rumpled newspapers, envelopes and magazines he had stuffed under his weather-beaten trenchcoat thrown carelessly over the back of a chair.”5

In the book, McCarthy quoted Joe Kennedy as saying he moved his young family from Boston proper to suburban Brookline (where JFK was born) and other homes in New York, Cape Cod, and Florida, because “it was no place to bring up Irish Catholic children. I didn’t want them to go through what I had to go through.”6

There are numerous similar passages, such as this one in McCarthy’s voice:

Resentment probably burned hotter in Joe Kennedy than in most of the Boston Irish of his generation because he associated more closely with the Yankee Brahmins than did most Irish of his time. Consequently, he was more exposed to slurs, more aware from first-hand experience of the cool condescension with which Beacon Hill looked down on people of his religion and racial background.7

The Kennedy family’s Irish-Catholic heritage and their national ambitions were well documented before 1960, including beyond Boston and Massachusetts political circles. But JFK’s run for the White House and the political journalism of Lahey and McCarthy magnified the anti-Irish Catholic narrative.

The Lahey column swept across the country: The Miami Herald, Feb. 12; The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, Feb. 18; Detroit Free Press, Feb. 18; Corpus Christi (Texas) Caller-Times, Feb. 19; The Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal, Feb. 19; Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, N.Y.), Feb. 21; Oakland (California) Tribune, Feb. 24; The Herald-News (Passaic, N.J.), Feb. 25; and likely many others that did not appear in my searches of digital newspaper archives. McCarthy’s book was serialized in many newspapers later that autumn, publishing just before Election Day.

In a book review, The New York Times also noted that “Kennedy, père, second generation descendant of Irish Catholic immigrants, suffered all the slights and indignities Brahmin Boston could contrive for its despised minorities in the decades around the turn of the [20th] century.”8

Kennedy’s Catholicism remained a larger campaign issue than his Irish roots, since prejudice against the religion was hardly confined to Boston’s elites. In November, “Kennedy’s victory not only broke through the age-old American bigotry against Catholics, but it also overcame the prejudice against the Irish.”9

Sixty years later, what is probably most remembered from McCarthy’s book is the prophetic quote that he obtained from JFK: “Just as I went into politics because [older brother] Joe died, if anything happened to me tomorrow, my brother Bobby would run for my seat in the Senate. And if Bobby died, Teddy would take over for him.”10

Previous posts on JFK:

JFK, Ireland, and the Sixth Floor Museum

U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated 55 years ago 22 November. In May, I visited the scene of that historic crime, now The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas.

The scene of the crime. Assassin shot from far right window, square, not arched. Sixth floor is one floor below top row of windows.

A museum about any murder would be a sad place. This one is particularly depressing (though well designed), since it also represented a huge loss of American innocence and idealism. In my opinion, it also marked the end of an Irish-American century that began with massive immigration of the Great Famine.

The museum doesn’t display much about JFK’s Irish heritage or his June 1963 homecoming. One video display quickly flashes the day after the assassination front page of The Irish Press, which contained a statement from Irish President Éamon de Valera:

During his recent visit here we came to regard the President as one of ourselves … We were proud of him as being of our race.”

Four oral histories held by the museum do contain Irish connections in interviews with:

  • Peter Rice, an Army presidential helicopter pilot who accompanied Kennedy on the 1963 trip to Ireland.

  • Rosian Zerner, who was in Dublin, Ireland, at the time of the assassination.

  • Eamon Kennedy, an Ireland native and photographer at the Dallas Times Herald during the assassination.

  • Dr. Peadar Cremin, who as a 14-year-old boy witnessed JFK in Ireland.

Kennedy was flawed, I know, and it’s easy to slip into sentimentality about him. But my stop at the Dallas museum seemed inevitable and necessary, the completion of a history trail on both sides of the Atlantic.

I have visited the Kennedy Homestead in County Wexford, where JFK made his triumphant June 1963 homecoming, five months before the murder, and seen the Kennedy tributes in Galway, his last stop in Ireland. I have been inside the Dáil Éireann chamber, where he gave a memorable speech.

When I lived in Boston, I explored the JFK Presidential Library and Museum, but skipped the boyhood home tour.

I have attended Mass at Holy Trinity, St. Stephen Martyr, and St. Matthew’s churches in Washington, D.C., where he worshiped in the Roman Catholic faith. Kennedy’s former presence is recognized at all three churches, most notably St. Matthew’s Cathedral, where a marble plaque is imposed in the floor in front of the sanctuary. This is the spot where Kennedy’s casket was stationed during his funeral Mass.

Most movingly, I have stood at the eternal flame next JFK’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery. Now, too, the Philip Johnson-design cenotaph in Dallas.

John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza, Dallas.

Irish-Americans who haven’t visited Ireland

The Irish Times has published extended interviews with eight Boston residents of Irish ancestry who have never been to Ireland. Reporter Rosita Boland notes that probably most of the tens of millions of Irish-Americans are not “economically privileged” enough to cross the Atlantic. Or maybe the state of mind is more important than the physical journey.

“I discovered that when Irish-Americans talk about identifying with the Irish they mean the Irish who came to settle in the United States and their descendants, not those of us living in Ireland,” she writes. “Ireland itself, the country, is the abstract, romanticized receptacle of dreams and green fields, and the place that will soothe a lifelong ache.”

I’ve been fortunate enough to make six trips to Ireland and Northern Ireland over the past 16 years. Reading the Times‘ piece sent me back to my first story about Ireland after my initial visit in May 2000. It began:

COBH, Ireland — I traveled here for Nora and William, as much as for myself.

Like millions of Irish, my mother’s parents emigrated from this harborside village near Cork, in southern Ireland, to a new life in America, never returning to the family or country they left behind. Like many Irish-Americans, I arrived here years later with a desire to walk the same waterfront, returning to where I never set out, exploring the first half of my hyphenated heritage.

The North Kerry coast, July 2016.

The North Kerry coast, July 2016.

 

Irish Brigades at Gettysburg, plus New York draft riots

There was a lot violence in America in July 1863. The Irish were right in the middle of it.

Most attention has focused on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of GettysburgThe Irish Brigades were among the men who fought and died on the famous battlefield and earlier skirmishes of the American Civil War. These post-Famine Irish and Irish-American soldiers joined units from New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. They had a reputation as fierce fighters, but their participation was prompted by more than patriotism. History.com says:

Ethnic units were a way for the Union Army to help win Irish support for its cause. This support was not guaranteed: Though most Irish immigrants lived in the North, they were sympathetic to (as they saw it) the Confederacy’s struggle for independence from an overbearing government—it reminded them of their fight to be free of the British. Also, many Irish and Irish Americans were not against slavery. On the contrary, they favored a system that kept blacks out of the paid labor market and away from their jobs. As a result, Union officials had to promise many things in addition to ethnic regiments—enlistment bonuses, extra rations, state subsidies for soldiers’ families, Catholic chaplains—in order to assure that the North’s largest immigrant group would be fighting with them and not against them.

Two weeks after Gettysburg, a predominantly Irish mob erupted in a five day anti-conscription riot in New York City. These urban working-class poor believed they were being forced to fight a “rich man’s war.” Their views were stoked by anti-emancipation newspapers and Democratic politicians:

Irish Catholic rioters targeted Protestant charities, such as the Magdalene Asylum and Five Points Mission. By the late afternoon, protesters had entered the city’s arsenal, which they burned (killing ten of their own) when the police arrived. The rioters also began attacking blacks, shouting racial slurs, and torching homes of poor African Americans on the west side of 30th Street. In one of the most infamous incidents, a mob burned the Colored Orphan Asylum on west 44th Street, although its 237 children escaped to safety.

New York riots

 

 

 

 

 

Image from New York Public Library.

Federal troops were needed to finally quell the riot, one of the worst outbreaks of insurrection in U.S. history. At least 120 people were killed and hundreds more were injured. The outburst ended organized Irish participation in the Civil War. Tensions between Irish immigrants, Irish-Americans and the African-American community would continue through Reconstruction and deep into the 20th century, including the Boston busing crisis of the 1970s and 1980s.

Too much hate and killing in the past, and the present

Which quote about Margaret Thatcher is from the Irish republican, which from the Ulster loyalist?

“Oh God, in wrath take vengeance upon this wicked, treacherous, lying woman.”

OR

“It’s a pity we didn’t kill her 30-plus years ago.”

The first quote is from Ian Paisley Sr., or Lord Bannside as he’s known in his dotage. He said it 25 years ago, days after Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Norman Hamill writes in the Derry Journal.

The second quote is from Willie Gallagher, an Irish National Liberation Army prisoner during the Troubles. He said it this week during an unseemly Thatcher funeral “celebration“ in Derry’s Bogside.

The Irish Examiner linked events of the past to what happened this week in London, Derry and Boston:

Margaret Thatcher has not been fondly remembered in this country. She was a very British politician who essentially did not like the Irish, and if we are fair, it is hard to blame her.

Irish people killed her advisor, Airey Neave, with a car bomb within the precincts of the British parliament in 1979. He was a British war hero, as was Louis Mountbatten, who was murdered the same year while boating in Sligo with his grandchildren. That was as savage an affront to humanity as the outrage in Boston.

So enough killing for this week. God knows there was too much in the past. And let the dead, no matter who they are, rest in peace.