Two Irish Americans were awarded America's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this week.
Jean Kennedy Smith, the former U.S. ambassador to Ireland, and John Sweeney, the former head of the AFL/CIO, were presented their medals by President Obama.
Kennedy, the only surviving sibling of President John F. Kennedy, played a leading role in the Irish peace process by helping convince President Clinton to give a visa to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams which led to an IRA ceasefire in 1994.
She continued to play a major role as the peace process succeeded in ending the 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland.
Sweeney rose from humble upbringings as the son of an Irish emigrant bus cleaner in the Bronx to become head of America's largest union. He gained a reputation as a fearless advocate of the union movement and a committed supporter of equal pay for women.
Awarding the medal to Jean Kennedy Smith President Obama said, “When you are among the youngest of nine children, you develop a strong sense of empathy. When those children are the Kennedys, you also develop a strong set of diplomatic skills just to be heard.
“Both traits helped Jean Kennedy Smith follow her siblings into public service. When her brother, President Kennedy, visited Ireland in 1963, he promised he’d be back in the springtime. Thirty years later, it was left to Jean to return for him. As President Clinton’s ambassador to Ireland, Jean was as vital as she was unconventional, helping brave men and women find the courage to see past the scars of violence and mistrust and come together to forge a lasting peace.
“Touched by experiences in her own life, Jean also founded the VSA program, helping people with disabilities discover the joys of learning through the arts, changing the lives of those it has served. And today, her mission has spread to more than 50 countries and touched millions of lives -- ensuring that the family business remains alive and well.”
Awarding the medal to Sweeney Obama said, “The Bronx-born son of Irish immigrants, John Sweeney was shaped by three things. His family -- his mother was a maid, his father was a bus driver -- instilled in him that fundamentally American idea that through hard work, we can make of our lives what we will. The church taught him our obligations to ourselves and one another. And as a child, he saw that by banding together in a union, we can accomplish great things that we can’t accomplish alone.
“John devoted his career to the labor movement, adding working folks to its ranks and fighting for fair working conditions and fair wages. As the head of the AFL-CIO, he was responsible for dozens of unions with millions of working families. Family. Faith. Fidelity to the common good. These are the values that make John Sweeney who he is; values at the heart of a labor movement that has helped build the world’s greatest middle class.”