Bruton: JFK's Visit a Dramatic Turning Point for Ireland

By John Bruton

In 1963, when President John Fitzgerald Kennedy visited Ireland, I was 15 years of age.

To understand the impact of President Kennedy, one has to understand that the Ireland of 1960 was a very different place, even to the Ireland of 1970.

In 1960, the pall of 19th century disappointment still hung over the country.

There was still a strong sense, at that time, that we might not be able to make it as a successful nation, at least in an economic sense.

Having gained our independence in 1921, we had failed to achieve the economic potential that many assumed independence would automatically bring just because the British had been removed.

This economic underachievement resulted from the physical damage wreaked by warfare between 1916 and 1923, to protectionist economic and social policies between 1932 and 1956, and to the difficulties any small-island economy faced, in the era before cheap air-travel, containerisation, and information technology. 

Other European countries had simply overtaken us.

But well before the Kennedy election, Irish politicians themselves had begun to change tack. Protectionism was dropped, foreign investment and exports were encouraged, island status became less of a handicap, and the economy started to grow.

And then, as if to confirm the more hopeful atmosphere, one of “our own,” a man of Irish Catholic heritage became President of the United States. Not only that, he came in person to visit our country.

The fact that an individual of Irish Catholic background could be elected President of the United States, and could present such a modern and suave image to the world, made everyone of the same religious and national background feel that they too should reassess their own potential, that they too could achieve great things, and that the stereotypes, applied to us for so long, need no longer constrain us.

The effect of all this was, of course, magnified by television. President Kennedy’s elegance, oratory and charm would have not have had a fraction of its impact, if it had happened in 1953, before television was widespread. He was probably the most televisual President ever, and he was able to use the medium to beam hope and confidence into every Irish home. JB

John Bruton, a former Teachta Dála in Ireland’s Dáil Éireann, served as the nation’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) from 1994 to 1997, and as Ambassador of the European Union to the United States from 2004 to 2007.  He is currently President of IFSC Ireland.  A graduate of University College Dublin, with degrees in economics and law, he is a passionate student of history.  John has graciously agreed to write book reviews on occasion for The Wild Geese. You can get more of John's perspectives on Irish -- and world -- affairs at http://www.johnbruton.com/.

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Tags: Diaspora History, JFK, Kennedy, United States

Comment by DJ Kelly on November 22, 2013 at 12:30am

A good article here, and a great picture too. I love the posse of 6 or 7 secret service men riding shotgun behind him. They are in matching raincoats. The President however is braving the soft Irish rain.

Comment by ed o'toole on November 22, 2013 at 5:38am

 I wonder if anyone noticed the difference with the Obama visit.

Clare Daly summed it up accurately with her amazing attack on the government's "slobbering" antics. Her speech was one of the most powerful and entertaining I have ever heard. I recommend watching it on Youtube to those that missed it.

Comment by Rónán Gearóid Ó Domhnaill on November 22, 2013 at 10:49am

JFK arrived to give a speech in the Dáil and was probably the youngest person there. Ireland was not used to young politicians. Had he lived he would have supported Britain and not Ireland when the Troubles started in 1969.

Comment by Rónán Gearóid Ó Domhnaill on November 22, 2013 at 10:52am

O'Bama did not even grace us with a full 24 hour visit and his appearance cost up millions and caused chaos for ordinary people. He only took  a sip of his pint. I bet he never knew of his Irishness before it was invented for him.

Comment by DJ Kelly on November 22, 2013 at 11:09am

I think perhaps you've confirmed Obama's Irishness with your apostrophe, Ronan.

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