Marking the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's visit to Ireland in 1963 and launching the EPIC Museum exhibition "Homecoming: JFK in Ireland", a panel discussion celebrated the ongoing strong links between Ireland, Massachusetts, and the Irish American community at large.

A panel discussion explored the historic visit of JFK to Ireland just months before his assassination in 1963, the memories and legacy of the US president's visit, the incredible changes seen in Ireland over the last 60 years, and Ireland's ongoing strong bonds with the United States. 

The discussion, moderated by journalist Dearbhail McDonald, saw JFK's nephew Stephen Kennedy Smith, Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey, US Ambassador to Ireland Claire Cronin, Ireland's Táinaiste (deputy leader) Micheál Martin share their memories and insights into JFK's 1963 homecoming.

Also present at the event were five of the 26 Irish Defense Force officers, then cadets, who were part of President Kennedy's funeral in 1963.

Watch the full EPIC Museum, "Homecoming: JFK in Ireland" panel discussion here:

Gov. Healey had also addressed the Irish Senate while visiting Ireland. She said the experience, 60 years on from JFK's appearance was "incredibly moving ... really, really poignant."

"When President Kennedy spoke, he spoke about freedom and making the case for democracy. That was in the time of the Cold War and the threats of totalitarianism. We're still confronted with some of that," Healy said.

"Making the case for freedom and democracy is something that the Irish and America have always had as a shared value and commitment, it was incredibly moving."

Tánaiste Martin told the audience that JFK's 1963 visit came at a pivotal time when the then-Taoiseach Seán Lemass was working on creating a more outward-looking Ireland - moving towards joining the European Union and building an import-export economy.

"John F. Kennedy at the time, in his wildest dreams didn't probably anticipate the island that was to come in terms of the country embedded in the multilateral framework," Martin said.

"The Biden administration actually reflects a very modern politics, in terms of the Irish-American relationship, that has manifested that in the navigating of Brexit. The protocol for the defense of the Good Friday Agreement, and right through to the work we're doing now with Samantha Power, in terms of USAID, in terms of food insecurity in Mali, and in Africa.

"It's on many strands through the relationship that clearly John F. Kennedy's visit is the starting point," he added.

Ireland's trading relationship with Massachusetts is valued at around $27 billion. Both Martin and Healy believe these figures will continue to grow.

Colonel Brian O’Reilly, Colonel William Nott , Micheál Martin Tánaiste of Ireland, Lieutenant Colonel Michael McGrath, Governor of Massachusetts Maura Healey, Commandant Leo Quinlan (back), Stephen Kennedy Smith, US Ambassador Claire D. Cronin, Commandant Desmond O’Donnell.

Colonel Brian O’Reilly, Colonel William Nott , Micheál Martin Tánaiste of Ireland, Lieutenant Colonel Michael McGrath, Governor of Massachusetts Maura Healey, Commandant Leo Quinlan (back), Stephen Kennedy Smith, US Ambassador Claire D. Cronin, Commandant Desmond O’Donnell.

Stephen Kennedy Smith, the son of JFK's sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, said her role as US Ambassador  in Dublin was "a dream come true for her."

"To be able to make a contribution to the peace process was really a great honor for her," Kennedy Smith added.

Kennedy Smith also made a comment on Kennedy's speech in Ireland's Senate in 1963 in which he predicted that Ireland would be a maker and shaker in global peace.

"I don't think our family would have been surprised at what Ireland was capable of," Kennedy Smith said.

"When I look at Ireland today, I see a lot that America can learn in terms of police reform, in terms of skillful management of immigration policy, while maintaining a culture that has coherence in terms of economic policies that are open and smart. We're all really looking forward to what is to come between our countries and what is to come for Ireland."

He said Ireland "is now an intellectual thought leader in the world" and that his family "has continued to feel this incredible sense of connection and I hope that goes on forever."

The US Ambassador to Ireland Claire Cronin made a comment on the fact that Congressman Joseph Kennedy III is now the US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, another sign of the legacy and ongoing connections between the family, the United States, and Ireland.

Ambassador Cronin said, "When the news first broke that Joe Kennedy was going to be appointed as a special envoy to Northern Ireland, we cheered in the embassy."

She added "I was particularly happy because I had had the great fortune as an elected official in Massachusetts to share a district with Joe Kennedy. So he's not just a colleague in the district but we were friends as well."

"I knew the work ethic he would bring to this, and the passion," Cronin said.

"Certainly the Kennedy name is worth something, that is intangible almost, but it's a name that is associated with hard work, trust, passion service, so I knew it would be great. Joe's one of the smartest people I know and the thought of him coming to Northern Ireland and being able to bring his depth of knowledge [to] things on the economic front will be very successful for the North, and in doing so, that will be successful for the whole island of Ireland."

Cronin also mentioned the huge success of President Joe Biden's return to Ireland in April 2023, noting his own deep connection to Ireland. 

“It was truly, truly wonderful to see a president come here who really embraced his Irish heritage in a way, although many US Presidents have claimed Irish heritage, there are really two that are really, really Irish – and that would be President Kennedy and President Biden,” Cronin said.

Moderator McDonald quickly responded saying “Don’t tell them at Obama Plaza.”

The EPIC Museum exhibition, Homecoming: JFK in Ireland, will run until Sept 24th 2023. The temporary exhibition invites visitors to step back in time to 1963 and reflect on the atmosphere and impact of a momentous journey.

JFK’s four-day visit strengthened ties between the two nations and ushered in a new era of optimism in a changing Ireland. Archival material including photographs and film footage will allow visitors to revisit the past through the eyes of the many thousands of people who lined the streets of Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick, and Wexford, welcoming home descendants of Famine emigrants whose story defied all odds.

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