By Edward T. O’Donnell
On June 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered one of his most memorable and significant addresses. Standing before a huge crowd in West Berlin, he denounced in no uncertain terms the recently constructed Berlin Wall and the communist system that had brought it into being. "All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I’d take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ " It was one of the boldest and memorable statements of U.S. ideals in the Cold War era.
That same evening, however, the focus of Kennedy’s European trip changed dramatically from Cold War statecraft to ethnic reconnection. Kennedy was returning to Ireland, the land of his immigrant forebears.
Kennedy toured the country for three days. His travels took him from Dublin to Cork, Galway, Wexford, and back to Dublin. Everywhere he was greeted by adoring crowds eager to see the unofficial king of the Irish diaspora. Kennedy reveled in the emotion and symbolism of the moment. When in Wexford, the county from which his great-grandfather had sailed to escape the ravages of the Famine, Kennedy received a gold box decorated with the coats of arms of Wexford, the Kennedy family, and the United States. That is a very good combination," he mused.
The light and celebratory tone of the visit brought out the legendary Kennedy wit and charm. "If you ever come to America," he told an audience in Galway, "come to Washington and tell them, at the gate, that you come from Galway. The word will be out — it will be céad míle fáilte.
Kennedy’s most poignant remarks, however, came at the end of his trip when he spoke in Dublin.
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"When my great-grandfather left here to become a cooper in East Boston, he carried nothing with him except two things: a strong religious faith and a strong desire for liberty," the president said. "And I am glad to say that all of his great-grandchildren have valued that inheritance. If he hadn’t left, I’d be working over here at the Albatross Company."
It was a classic statement on the diaspora — one that acknowledged both the promise of America and the tragedy of Ireland.
The trip was a resounding success, so much so that Kennedy promised in his address before the Irish Parliament, "I certainly will come back in the springtime." No one on either side of the Atlantic could have known that he’d never get the chance.
Hibernian History Week
€ June 28, 1922: The Irish Civil War commences when forces of the Free State army, under the command of Michael Collins, begin an assault against anti-Treaty Republicans occupying the Four Courts in Dublin.
€ July 1, 1690: William of Orange defeats King James II at the Battle of the Boyne. Although forces loyal to James remain in the field for more than a year, they are eventually defeated in October 1691. England soon imposed the draconian Penal Laws on the Irish People.
€ July 2, 1921: In the first prizefight broadcast on radio (and the first featuring a million-dollar gate), Jack Dempsey knocks out George Carpentier in the fourth round of their bout in Jersey City, N.J.
July 2, 1963: Oscar Wilde’s "The Importance of Being Earnest" opens in New York starring Mia Farrow. The play’s favorable reviews help the Irish American actress to launch a successful show biz career.
€ June 29, 1907: Civil rights lawyer and politician Paul O’Dwyer born in Bohola, County Mayo.
€ July 3, 1878: Actor, singer, and composer George M. Cohan born in Providence, R.I.
€ July 3, 1746: Patriot and founder of the Irish Parliament (1782) Henry Grattan born in Dublin.
€ July 4, 1826: Prolific songwriter Stephen Foster born in Lawrenceville, Pa.