The Irish Road to the White House
The story of how the Irish rose to the top of American politics.
The nomination in 1960 of John Kennedy as the Democratic presidential candidate was the culmination of the process of reorganization that defined the post-Famine experience of Irish America. The descendant of Famine immigrants and Irish-American pols (his maternal grandfather, John Fitzgerald – aka “Honey Fitz” – was the mayor of Boston), Kennedy was not only handsome, articulate and a war hero, he was also a product of exclusive prep schools and Harvard University. On the surface he bore little resemblance to politicians like Al Smith.
For all his upper-class finesse and Ivy League polish, however, there was never any doubt that John Kennedy was an Irish Catholic. As Tom Maier makes clear in his enlightening book, The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings, J.F.K. had a thorough grasp of Irish history and a deep appreciation of his own family’s place in the journey out of Famine Ireland into America.
Professor Lawrence McCaffrey, the dean of Irish-American history, has identified the common denominator among Irish-American pols this way: “The famous Irish political style was shaped by Irish history, Catholic communal values, and confrontations with British imperialism and colonialism. In their efforts to free themselves…the Irish learned to compete within the context of the Anglo-Protestant political system.” Beginning with Daniel O’Connell and continuing in America, writes McCaffrey, “they became particularly adroit in the techniques of mass agitation, political organization and confrontation, and liberal-democratic politics.” The makings of Kennedy’s historic victory rose out of this Irish insistence on retaining their identity while refusing to accept second-class citizenship.
At the heart of the matter would always be the catastrophe of the Famine. It was the great divide – an economic and existential upheaval that transformed the landscape of Ireland and the mindscape of the Irish, both at home and in the diaspora that it helped bring about. A physical wound and psychic humiliation, it dwarfed the effects of any battlefield rout. Whether spoken about or not, the Famine was always there, embedded in Irish America’s very foundations, in ambitions, fears, doubts, in the expectations Irish Americans passed to their children, in how they worshipped and worked, in their religious, educational and social organizations and, above all, in their politics. The experience of political initiation under O’Connell took on new meaning and significance in the trans-Atlantic passage to America.
Nobody has spoken more movingly of that passage and what it meant than J.F.K. In testament to history’s love of improbable outcomes, this great-grandson of Famine emigrants, who a century and a quarter before left a wrecked, enfeebled province of a globe-girding empire for an uncertain future in a country that held their condition pitiable and their religion contemptible, became the first sitting President of the United States to visit Ireland and address the parliament of what was now an independent nation.
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