I am pleased to welcome back Dublin-based historian Felix M. Larkin, who has contributed an essay – entitled “Judging Kennedy” – to a new volume From whence I came: The Kennedy Legacy, Ireland and America, edited by Brian Murphy and Donnacha Ó Beacháin (Irish Academic Press). The 15 essays in the collection had their origin in papers given at the Kennedy Summer School, held annually in New Ross, Co. Wexford, since 2012 (though not in 2020, because of the pandemic). New Ross is the small port from whence John F. Kennedy’s great-grandfather left Ireland. The title of the volume is taken from Kennedy’s speech in nearby Wexford town during his June 1963 visit to Ireland. An adaptation of part of Larkin’s chapter follows below.
In reading, thinking and writing about Kennedy over many years, I have often been struck by the parallel between his death and that of the great nineteenth-century Irish constitutional nationalist leader, Charles Stewart Parnell. Though Parnell was not the victim of an assassin, he was hounded to his death by his enemies and the shadow that his death cast – memorably captured in the writings of James Joyce and W.B. Yeats – had an effect similar to that of Kennedy’s, albeit on a narrower canvas. Parnell and Kennedy have thus become part of the mythologies, as well as part of the history, of their respective countries. Parnell’s idealization by Joyce and Yeats is the Irish equivalent of the characterization of the Kennedy presidency as “Camelot on the Potomac”.
There are many other correspondences in the lives of these two remarkable men:
- both were young leaders – Parnell was 45 when he died, Kennedy was 46;
- whereas Kennedy had Irish ancestors, Parnell had an American mother;
- Kennedy was a Catholic leader in a predominantly Protestant country, while Parnell was a Protestant leader in a predominantly Catholic country;
- Parnell made a triumphant visit to the US in 1880, and Kennedy came to Ireland in June 1963; and
- the sense of possibility in Kennedy’s vision of the “New Frontier” chimes with Parnell’s assertion that “no man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation”.
Parnell and Kennedy are good examples of the “lost leader” syndrome, great men cut down in their prime whose reputations are more enduring than those of their contemporaries who lived on to make a more substantial contribution to their country’s fortunes. As Stephen Collins, the Irish Times journalist, has suggested, lost leaders are remembered with such fascination and admiration precisely because they “have not had to govern for long, if at all, and so don’t get sucked into the messy compromises that are the inevitable fate of long-serving politicians entrusted with the thankless task of government”.
Surprisingly, there is some evidence that Parnell may have influenced Kennedy’s style and mode of operation as a political leader. Robert Dallek records that Kennedy “was conversant with Irish leader Charles [Stewart] Parnell’s counsel: Get the advice of everybody whose advice is worth having – they are very few – and then do what you think best yourself”. Moreover, Kennedy referred to Parnell in his speech to the Irish parliament during his visit to Ireland in 1963. He first mentioned the fact that he had in his office – the Oval Office – the sword of Commodore John Barry, the founder of the American navy, who was born in County Wexford. He then went on to note:
Yesterday [27 June 1963] was the 117th anniversary of the birth of Charles Stewart Parnell, whose grandfather fought under Barry and whose mother was born in America, and who, at the age of 34, was invited to address the American Congress on the cause of Irish freedom. “I have seen since I have been in this country”, he said, “so many tokens of the good wishes of the American people towards Ireland”. And today, 83 years later, I can say to you that I have seen in this country so many tokens of good wishes of the Irish people towards America.
Parnell’s grandfather and namesake was Admiral Charles Stewart, commander of the USS Constitution during the War of 1812, and Kennedy had on his desk in the Oval Office two bookends with brass replicas of cannons on the USS Constitution and on the walls flanking the fireplace in the office were pictures of the famous naval engagement between the Constitution and the British frigate Guerriere. A model of the Constitution was displayed on the mantelpiece above the fireplace, and when Kennedy met Krushchev in Vienna in June 1961, he presented the Soviet leader with another model of the ship – perhaps as a gentle reminder of the power of the U.S. Navy.
The USS Constitution (nicknamed ‘Old Ironsides’) is now a tourist attraction in Boston Harbor, in the city that was Kennedy’s political base from 1946 when he was first elected to the US House of Representatives. Admiral Charles Stewart’s magnificent desk is among the exhibits in Avondale House, the ancestral home of the Parnells in county Wicklow.
See Larkin’s “The Slow Death of the Freeman’s Journal”, October 2019, and other essays from our guest contributors. Consider offering a proposal through the provided form, or message me at @markaholan.
For Parnell’s speech in which these lines occur, see Pauric Travers, ‘The march of the nation: Parnell’s ne plus ultra speech’ in Pauric Travers and Donal McCartney (eds), Parnell reconsidered (Dublin: UCD Press, 2013), pp. 179-96.
Stephen Collins, ‘Romantic Ireland lives on in our fascination with the leaders who left us too young’, Irish Times, 3 August 2013.
Robert Dallek, Camelot’s court: inside the Kennedy White House (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), p. 35. Parnell’s words here are as recorded in William O’Brien, An olive branch in Ireland and its history (London: Macmillan, 1910), p. 47. They were quoted by Conor Cruise O’Brien in his Parnell and his party (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957), p. 145, n. 1.
 Speech to the joint session of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann, 28 June 1963.