JFK in Ireland: The early visits of a future US president

On the eve of the 70th anniversary of his first stay in Ireland, Ryle Dwyer examines the early visits of the iconic John F Kennedy, and his thoughts on the likes of Eamon de Valera

JFK in Ireland: The early visits of a future US president

A future president to be, John F Kennedy’s first stay in Ireland began on July 24, 1945. He came as a journalist writing articles for the Hearst newspaper chain in order to raise his public profile for a run at Congress the following year.

His father, Joseph P Kennedy, was not renowned for his diplomacy, but it was as a diplomat that he had made an invaluable contribution to allowing Ireland stay out of the Second World War. Ireland had been engaged in the Economic War and Anglo-Irish negotiations, at the time, were deadlocked prior to Kennedy’s appointment as US ambassador to Britain in 1938.

Taoiseach Éamon de Valera had President Franklin D Roosevelt intervene in the negotiations. Although the Roosevelt felt unable to do so directly, he wrote to de Valera that he was acting indirectly. “I have taken the course of asking my friend, Mr Joseph P Kennedy, who sails today for England to take up his post as ambassador, to convey a personal message from me to the prime minister, and to tell the prime minister how happy I should be if reconciliation could be brought about.” Roosevelt explained.

Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister, told his cabinet that Kennedy “had spoken strongly to him of the valuable effect on opinion in America of an agreement with Éire”.

The British duly dropped some of their trade demands and concluded three separate agreements with the Irish government, ending the Economic War, and handing over the three naval bases that had been ceded to Britain in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. More importantly, the British also renounced their Treaty right to any other Irish bases or facilities that Britain might desire in time of war or strained relations. This paved the way for Ireland to stay out of the Second World War.

Believing the Americans had provided the necessary impetus for the agreements, de Valera, as chancellor of the National University, rewarded Joe Kennedy with an honorary doctorate in July 1938.

During this visit to Dublin to pick up the award, Kennedy played up his Irish ancestry. All of his grandparents had emigrated from Ireland. “My parents and my grandparents talked ever of Ireland, and from my youth I have been intent upon this pilgrimage,” he told reporters in Dublin.

At the time the republican issue was smoldering in Ireland. The 1937 Constitution had replaced the British king with a president as Irish head of State. Joe Kennedy highlighted the issue by welcoming the selection of Douglas Hyde, a Protestant, as Irish president.

“America is very happy about the selection of your new president,” Kennedy said. “It showed moderation. After all, Ireland is quite Catholic and the people of America feel that the country will get along well when it is handled like that. A spirit of tolerance is welcome to everybody.”

It was Joe Kennedy’s idea that his son Jack should visit Europe as a journalist in 1945 to enhance his profile in order to run for Congress the following year. Joe arranged for Jack to stay at the US Legation in Phoenix Park and meet with de Valera.

Jack Kennedy’s only previous visit to Ireland was a brief stopover at Foynes while returning to the US just after the outbreak of the war in September 1939. He flew in from Southampton on board the Yankee Clipper en route to New York.

By the time he returned to Ireland in July 1945, the war was over in Europe. He stayed at the US embassy, but he did not allow the ambassador, David Gray, to influence his writings.

“Mr Gray’s opinion of de Valera was that he was sincere, incorruptible, also a paranoiac and a lunatic,” the future US president noted in his diary. According to Gray, de Valera “believed Germany was going to win. He kept strict neutrality even towards the simplest United States demand.”

Gray had complained, for instance, that the taoiseach had ignored the death of President Franklin Roosevelt but then proffered condolence to Germany following Hitler’s death a fortnight later. It was to be a brazen lie.

“Mr de Valera made a very moving tribute to the president in the Dáil this morning and moved adjournment till tomorrow,” Gray actually wrote to Roosevelt’s widow at the time. “I thought I knew this country and its people but this was something new. There was a great deal of genuine feeling.”

Jack Kennedy had his own perspective on Irish neutrality. In 1941 he had written in the New York Journal-American that de Valera could not give Irish ports to Churchill during the war. As minister for war in 1920, he noted that Churchill had dispatched the Black and Tans to Ireland.

“Ireland has not forgotten this, and remembers further that in 1938 Mr Churchill also led the group who opposed the return of the ports to Ireland,” Kennedy wrote in 1941. “They do not feel they can depend on him to restore them once the war is over.”

While Kennedy was in Dublin in July 1945, the results of the recent British general election were announced. He was surprised to learn that Churchill had been defeated, but he had nevertheless astutely warned of the possibility in one of his published articles.

“There are millions of young voters who will be voting for the first time and no one is sure which way they’ll go,” Kennedy reported on May 28, 1945. “While Churchill’s strength is undisputed, it is not certain he can buck the recent surge to the left.” It would be interesting to read more of Kennedy’s views at the time, but the American people were not really that interested in Europe. The war was still only heading towards its climax in the Pacific.

Kennedy was duly elected to Congress in November 1946. He stopped off in Ireland again in August 1947 to visit his sister Kathleen, who was staying at Lismore Castle, which her late husband had been due to inherit before he was killed in the war.

Other guests at the castle at the time included the future British prime minister Anthony Eden, along with Pamela Churchill, the estranged daughter-in-law of Winston Churchill. Jack got on particularly well with Pamela, at least initially.

They borrowed a station wagon and went looking for his relatives in the Dunganstown area, near New Ross. It was the first time that Kennedy met his third cousins. He was captivated “in a flow of nostalgia and sentiment”, according to himself.

There were seven children in the house and Kennedy brought them around New Ross in the station wagon. Private cars had disappeared from Irish roads during the war, so this was possibly the first time the children had been in a car.

“That was just like Tobacco Road,” Pamela said to Kennedy as they were driving back to Lismore. She was alluding to the famous 1932 novel about a family of destitute white sharecroppers in the southern US during the Great Depression. Members of that fictional family had been preoccupied with hunger, sexual frustrations, and fears that they might descend lower on the social ladder than their black neighbours. The well-read Kennedy was incensed. “I felt like kicking her out of the car,” he later said. “For me, the visit to that cottage was filled with magic.”

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