Tag Archives: John F. Kennedy

U.S.-Irish relations at St. Patrick’s Day: 1916-2016 (P3)

This blog series focuses on U.S.- Irish relations at St. Patrick’s Day over the past 100 years. Since this is the centennial of the Easter Rising, I’m looking at 1916 and each 25 years afterward: 1941, 1966 and 1991. I’m also writing a post on St. Patrick’s Day 1976, the year of the American bicentennial.

Part 3: The Rising’s 50th anniversary & the bowl of shamrocks

The tradition of an Irish government official visiting the White House at St. Patrick’s Day to deliver shamrocks dates to 1952. President Harry Truman was out of town when Irish Ambassador John Joseph Hearne paid the call.

During the Eisenhower years, “the ceremony’s prominence waxed and waned,” according to this 2010 CNN story, “but the shamrock presentation became a full-blown media event when John F. Kennedy, himself an Irish-American, entered the White House.”

Less than three years after Kennedy’s triumphant return to Ireland and his assassination six months later, Lyndon B. Johnson was the U.S. president. According to president’s daily diary for March 17, 1966, LBJ received Ambassador of Ireland H.E. William Fay and Mrs. Fay in the Oval Office shortly after noon.

The president was presented with “fresh shamrocks [redacted] flown in from Ireland in an 18-inch tall Waterford crystal vase.” It appears that two words are redacted between “shamrocks” and “flown.”

What got blacked out? My guess: “and whiskey.”

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JFK and LBJ.

Earlier that St. Patrick’s Day, officials at the British Embassy discovered their gateposts and two plaster lions on a parapet in front of the building had been painted green. The Washington Post reported: “Painted in black letters upon the chests of the seated two-foot-high lions were the fighting words: ‘Up the rebels.’ ”

But the story does not mention the 50th anniversary of the Rising.

The Post’s St. Patrick’s Day roundup also reported that a small park at 24th Street and Massachusetts Avenue near the Irish Embassy would soon become the new home for a 7-foot-tall bronze statue of Robert Emmet. The statue of the early 19th century leader in the fight for independence was commissioned in 1917, the year after the Rising. It had been display the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History, but recently put into storage. An April story notes the statue and park were dedicated for “the 50th anniversary of Irish independence.”

The presidential diary for St. Patrick’s Day shows that Johnson left the Oval Office shortly before 8 p.m., telling aides he was returning to the private residence to change shirts “because I’m going to help the Irish celebrate.”

He was driven to the Statler Hilton Hotel a few blocks from the White House to visit the Washington Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick’s annual dinner. Chapter President Rev. C. Leslie Glenn of the Washington Cathedral draped an honorary membership medal with green ribbons around the president’s neck. Only Presidents George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt had received similar honorary membership, according to the diary notes.

“The president then walked the length of the head table and shook hands with those sitting there,” the diary says. He gave remarks, but the diary does not indicate what he said.

Johnson returned to the Oval Office about 30 minutes later.

Two opportunities to write about Ireland

I’ve recently come across two opportunities to write about Ireland and Irish America:

  • the Global Irish Media Fund, sponsored by the Republic’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; and
  • the Tiny Plays for Ireland and America Playwriting Challenge, a collaboration between the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and Fishamble, The New Play Company in Dublin.

The Global Irish Media Fund will provide grants to news organizations and journalists to tell stories from, and about, the Irish abroad and the impact of emigration on those at home.

“The successes and the challenges of our emigrants, both recent and distant, are of interest to Irish people and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade wishes to facilitate more reporting of these stories,” Minister for Diaspora Affairs, Jimmy Deenihan TD, said in a release.

The maximum amount of funding available to any applicant is €10,000. The deadline for applications is Jan. 15, 2016. Details and application.


The Tiny Plays Challenge is part of the approaching 100th birthday celebration of President Kennedy, May 29, 2017, and IRELAND 100: Celebrating a Century of Irish Arts and Culture, a series of 2016 events at the Kennedy Center tied to the Easter Rising centennial. Kennedy was America’s first Irish-Catholic president from January 1961 until his assassination in November 1963.

Plays must demonstrate how Kennedy’s legacy lives on in America today, and responding to the call, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”  Submissions must be 500 words or less, in English, with no more than three actors.

Selected plays will be performed in May 2016 at the Kennedy Center and at the Irish Arts Center in New York. Winning playwrights also receive a $500 honorarium.

The deadline to apply is Feb. 19, 2016. Details and application.

A simpler St. Patrick’s Day wish, 1953

I want to get away from all the noise and nonsense that’s come to surround St. Patrick’s Day, the once reverent, if myth-filled, holy day turned raucous global celebration.

So here’s a reminder of a simpler St. Patrick’s Day, a 1953 letter from a sister in Kerry, Ireland to her brother in Pittsburgh, USA. It’s from a collection of letters I inherited from my aunt a few years ago. A few other letters from the 1950s also included sprigs of shamrock from the north Kerry countryside.


Keep in mind that 1953 was seven years before the election of John F. Kennedy as president (a decade before his return to Ireland and assassination later the same year), and nine years before Chicago began to dye its river green. While the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin dates to 1931, it was nothing like today’s massive multi-day festivals.

JFK’s next to last resting place

There was plenty of attention last year about the 50th anniversaries of John F. Kennedy’s 1963 trip to Ireland and assassination in Dallas. Today I was abruptly reminded of the later event.

My wife (@AngieHolan) and I attended the Saturday vigil Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C. I was walking up the center aisle to receive Holy Communion when I noticed the marble plaque on the floor just before the sanctuary:

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“…People come to the cathedral from across the country and around the world, with many wanting to stand at that very spot,” Catholic News Service reported last year. I hope to visit the JFK gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery in the near future.

Also worth noting at the Cathedral in terms of Irish America is the lunette mural above the main entrance. It’s titled “Saintly and Eminent Personages of the Americas.”

Click here for key to figures on church website.

Click here for key to figures from the church website.

Among the figures depicted on the mural are The Most Reverend John Carroll, the first bishop and archbishop in the United States and the founder of nearby Georgetown University, the nation’s oldest Catholic university; and James Cardinal Gibbons, the first cardinal of Baltimore.

Carroll was from a prominent Irish-Catholic family with roots in counties Laois, Offaly and Tipperary, according to this story in Irish America. Gibbons parents were from Tourmackeady in County Mayo.

As chairman of the American Commission on Relief in Ireland, Gibbons helped lead efforts to aid Ireland during the Irish War of Independence. In this March 2, 1921, letter published in Catholic newspapers, he wrote:

I need not urge upon the Americans of Irish descent their special duty to their own flesh and blood; they have given generously to all other suffering people, they will not forget their own. … 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.

Gibbons died a few weeks later on March 24, 1921, before the end of the war and year of civil war that followed.

Irish-American president and streetcar workers

The 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s June 1963 trip to Ireland is getting a lot of attention. Part of the commemoration has included bringing a flame lit from the eternal flame at Kennedy’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C. to New Ross in County Wexford.


Image from ABC

Kennedy’s trip was a triumph for Ireland, for Irish-Americans and for Roman Catholics. Thirty-two years before his 1960 election, Irish-Catholic Democrat Al Smith was crushed by Herbert Hoover in his bid for the presidency. The nation was still too mired in its prejudice against Smith’s ethnicity and faith. (As it turned out, missing the 1929 stock market crash and start of the Great Depression might have saved Irish-American Catholics further hatred in the long run. It sure helped the Democrats.)

As Kennedy made his historic visit to Ireland in June 1963, a small group of Pittsburgh-area politicians and volunteers established the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum. They realized that street railways in Pittsburgh and other parts of the nation were fading from regular use as buses became the preferred public transit to serve far-flung, rapidly growing suburbs.

What does that have to with Kennedy?

Irish immigrants dominated the labor force of street railways in urban America from the time the systems were created in the late 19th century. They joined the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees, formed in 1892, to push for higher wages and better working conditions.

“The streetcar workforce and the union were composed entirely of men, many of whom were Irish,” says the National Streetcar Museum in Lowell, Mass.

The same was true in other Irish immigrant hubs such as nearby Boston (where Kennedy’s ancestors settled), New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh. My Kerry-born grandfather, his brother-in-law and three cousins were among many Irish immigrants employed by Pittsburgh Railways Co. as motormen and conductors.

Like cops, the Irish had a big advantage over other immigrants in obtaining these big city jobs, which required frequent public contact. They spoke the language. In both professions, these unionized, uniform-wearing jobs helped first-generation Irish immigrants build middle-class lives that provided even better opportunities for their children and grandchildren.

And that’s another important part of what JFK’s trip to Ireland symbolized in June 1963.


Early 20th century Pittsburgh Railways Co. streetcar workers.

DISCLOSURE: I am a member of the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum.

Kenny echoes Kennedy

“I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”

Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in a September 1960 campaign speech to a group of Protestant ministers.


“I am proud to stand here as a public representative, as a Taoiseach who happens to be a Catholic, but not a Catholic Taoiseach.”

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny in a June 12 speech to the Dáil, or parliament, regarding his sponsorship of a proposed law changing Ireland’s abortion law.


Kenny delivers BC commencement address

Irish PM Enda Kenny has delivered the Boston College commencement address, telling graduates: “Live long and deep and comfortably in your own skin.”

His appearance at the Catholic school drew extra attention due to Archbishop of Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s decision to boycott the annual rite, where he traditionally would give the benediction.


Kenny at Boston College. Photo from stamfordadvocate.com

O’Malley has accused Kenny of “aggressively promoting abortion legislation” in Ireland. The cardinal and other church leaders say Ireland’s pending abortion legislation creates a slippery slope toward eliminating the country’s prohibition against the procedure.

A committee in Dublin is hearing testimony this week on the proposed bill. Supporters say it keeps the abortion prohibition in place while clarifying exceptions involving the life of the mother, including thoughts of suicide.

Kenny did not address the abortion controversy in his May 20 remarks at Boston College. The Irish Independent described the 26-minute speech as “rousing.” Here’s a link to the transcript.

During his weekend visit to Boston, the taoiseach also spoke at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, which is joining U.S. and Irish remembrances of JFK’s June 1963 trip to Ireland. Kenny also laid a wreath at the site of the Boston Marathon bombing.

Kennedy’s ’63 trip to Ireland nears 50th anniversary

Before Dallas there was Dublin…and New Ross…and Galway.

Historian Myles Dungan shares his memories of John F. Kennedy’s June 1963 visit to the Irish capitol in a post that sets the stage for next month’s 50th anniversary of the historic trip.

America’s first (and only) Irish-Catholic president “lapped up the blatant adulation,” Dungan writes, as he shared the motorcade with Eamon De Valera.

The U.S. Embassy, the JFK Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, the National Library of Ireland and other organizations are marking the anniversary with a number of special events on both sides of the Atlantic.

We will post more about this anniversary over the coming month. It will be good to enjoy these happy memories before having to recall the dark anniversary of November 1963.

JFK in Dublin, June 1963. Image from thegatheringireland.com