Eugene Dunphy goes back sixty years to tell the story of President Kennedy’s momentous visit to the land of his ancestors.


“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans”.

So said John Fitzgerald Kennedy, thirty-fifth President of the United States, during his inauguration speech in Washington, on the 20th of January 1961. This was a seminal day for the people of Ireland and for Irish-Americans, in that it was the first time in history that a Catholic with strong Irish roots had been elected as U.S. head of state.

The second of nine children, ‘JFK’, as he came to be known, was born in the Massachusetts town of Brookline, near Boston, on the 29th of May 1917. Both his grandfathers were prominent in American politics, Patrick J. Kennedy serving in both Houses of the Massachusetts State Legislature, and John F. Fitzgerald (his maternal grandfather) served in the U.S. Congress and as Mayor of Boston.

At the age of twenty-four, John tried to enlist in the U.S. Army, but was refused due to a back injury he had sustained while playing a college football game. He was, however, accepted into the navy, soon assuming the rank of Lieutenant.

In 1943, while on board a Patrol Torpedo boat near the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, his vessel (PT-109) was cut in two by a Japanese destroyer, Lieutenant Kennedy managing to pull some of his comrades from the sea and haul them ashore, for which he received the U.S. and Marine Corps Medal.

Demobbed in 1945, he worked for a while as a journalist before entering politics, and was elected to Congress at the age of twenty-nine. On the 12th of September, 1953, he married Jacqueline (‘Jackie’) Lee Bouvier, the couple having two children, Caroline and John Jnr.

On the 17th of June, 1963, the Irish Ambassador to the United States, Thomas J. Kiernan, had a private audience with President Kennedy at White House. When interviewed by the Irish Press, Kiernan informed the reporter that he was just finalising the details of the President’s forthcoming trip to Ireland, and was getting ready ‘to roll out the green carpet’.

JFK had in fact visited Ireland on three previous occasions, the first being in July 1938, when he came with his father, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, then U.S. Ambassador in London. Returning again in 1947, he paid a visit to the ancestral Kennedy homestead in Dunganstown, near New Ross, County Wexford, and in 1955, in his capacity as U.S. Senator, he met in Dublin Liam Cosgrave, then Irish Minister of External Affairs.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own