It has long been alleged that JFK cared little for the cause of Irish freedom, so much so that some Irish Americans referred to him derisively as “Union Jack.”
However, his speech to the Irish Institute on January 12, 1957 in New York City showed a very different Jack Kennedy.
In this week that marks the 100th anniversary of his birth it is interesting to look back on his Irish position.
It was around the time the Russians had brutally put down the Hungarian uprising and Jack Kennedy did not mince his words – he made a strong comparison with Ireland’s cause.
“We will recognize whether a man be Hungarian or Irish, Catholic or Jew, white or black, there forever burns within his breast the desire to be free.”
Kennedy was a 40-year-old junior U.S. Senator nearing the end of his first term and facing a senate re-election campaign in Massachusetts. But it was clear JFK was more than just an average U.S. Senator and he had become a leader within the Democratic Party. In 1956, he had come close to gaining the VP slot on the Dem ticket headed by Adlai Stevenson.
In 1957 JFK won the Pulitzer Prize for his book “Profiles in Courage.” Meanwhile, the media had already discovered the young handsome senator and war hero.
However, the Irish Institute had difficulties selling tickets to their New York dinner starring the young senator. It was Bronx boss, Edward Flynn, who proved the star attraction in terms of putting bums on seats. Irish Institute president Paul O’Dwyer said that without Flynn’s help the dinner might have been a disaster. He remembered Kennedy as whip smart, deeply immersed in his Irish heritage and very ambitious.
Apart from his speeches in Ireland this is the only other major Irish speech JFK made.
Here is the speech in full:
I am delighted to be in New York tonight, not only because my family has close ties with this city, but also because I feel strongly the bonds of a common kinship with this distinguished organization. All of us of Irish descent are bound together by the ties that come from a common experience, experience which may exist only in memories and in legend, but which is real enough to those who possess it. And thus whether we live in Cork or in Boston, in New York or in Sydney, we are all members of a great family which is linked together by that strongest of chains - a common past. It is strange to think that the wellspring from which this great fraternal empire has sprung is but a small island in the far Atlantic with a population only a fraction of the size of this empire state. But this is the source, and it is this green and misty island to the east that we honor here tonight - honoring it particularly, I have in mind, for its devotion to human liberty.
I do not maintain that the Irish were the only race to display extraordinary devotion to liberty, or the only people to struggle unceasingly for their national independence. History proves otherwise. But the special contribution of the Irish, I believe - the emerald thread that runs throughout the tapestry of their past - has been the constancy, the endurance, the faith that they displayed through endless centuries of foreign oppression - centuries in which even the most rudimentary religious and civil rights were denied to them - centuries in which their mass destruction by poverty, disease and starvation were ignored by their conquerors.
(For example, on February 19, 1847, it was announced in the House of Commons that 15,000 persons were dying of starvation in Ireland every day; and Queen Victoria was so moved by this pitiful news that to the society for Irish relief she contributed five pounds. Perhaps we should not be too quick to condemn the good queen, however - for in those days the English pound was no doubt worth more than it is today.)
But all that is now past. No outlander rules over Eire, no despot prohibits the wearin' o' the green. Yet is it not a bitter and tragic irony that the Irish should now enjoy their freedom at a time when a billion people are held in an iron captivity, held in a great half circle stretching from the plains beyond the captive city of Budapest in the West to the Red River Delta beyond the trampled city of Hanoi in the East?
I know of few men in our land, and none in this room, who would ignore these tyrannies as far-off troubles of no concern to us here at home. For we realize, as John Boyle O'Reilly once wrote, that:
The world is large, when its weary leagues
Two loving hearts divide;
But the world is small, when your enemy
Is loose on the other side.
Irishmen, moreover, have always been concerned with totalitarianism and repression in other lands. The commodity that Ireland has exported most widely to other nations is neither potatoes nor linen - but human freedom. Throughout the history of that tiny island, its exiles and emigrants have fought notably, with sword and pen, for freedom in other parts of the globe. Particularly noted were the "Wild Geese" - the officers and soldiers forced to flee their native Ireland after the Battle of the Boyne. Fighting for the French, they broke the ranks of the English at Fontenoy. Fighting for the Spanish, they turned the tide of battle against the Germans at Melazzo. And fighting for the American Union Army, they bore the brunt of the slaughter at Fredericksburg.
"War-battered dogs are we, (they said)
gnawing a naked bone;
Fighters in every land and clime -
(for) every cause but our own."
And thus we who are gathered here tonight, as the heirs and the successors to the wild Geese, are saddened by the tragic course of recent events in captive Hungary. For the story of last fall's Hungarian martyrdom holds for us a familiar ring. To be sure, the time, the place and the cast of characters may be different. But the techniques of oppression, the alternating hope and despair of the oppressed, and the unquenchable thirst for human liberty that lingers on despite all defeats and disappointments - these are merely modern repetitions of events that took place in Ireland more than 300 years ago.
I think it is important that we make that comparison tonight - not to revive the unhappy memories and national animosities of an age gone by - but to remind us all that, along with the need to worship God, there has been implanted in every man's soul the desire to be free. The centuries long faith of the Irish, and their ultimate success against overwhelming odds, should be remembered today by those in the cellars and garrets of Budapest who feel that all hope is lost. It should be remembered by the masters of the Kremlin who are smugly confident that a free people can be forever crushed beneath their heel. And it should be remembered by our own foreign policy makers, whenever they are urged to accept as permanent the enslaved status of the Satellite countries.
Perhaps the chapter of Irish history which is most sharply brought to mind by the Hungarian uprising of 1956 is the story of the Irish rebellion of 1641, and its hero Owen Roe O'Neill. The story actually begins with the famous "Flight of the Earls" in 1607. His homeland crushed, his family threatened and his own usefulness to the cause about to be abruptly ended by assassination or imprisonment, the Earl of Tyrone, Hugh O'Neill, sailed sadly into exile on the continent accompanied by his family and Rory, the Earl of Tyrconnell. Among those making the gloomy journey was Hugh's young nephew, Owen Roe. The "Flight of the Earls" left the Irish people with nothing to sustain them but hope - and very little of that.
"O, sad in green Tyrone when you left us, Hugh O'Neill,
In our grief and bitter need, to the spoiler's cruel steel!...
Will you come again, O Hugh, in all your olden power,
In all the strength and skill we knew, with Rory, in that hour
When the Sword leaps from its scabbard, and the Night hath passed away,
And Banba's battle-cry rings loud at Dawning of the Day?"
Hugh O'Neill would not come again. He died in 1616, still dreaming of returning to free his native land. And in Ireland, hope gave way to despair. For now the Irish people were hard put to keep alive the memory of their lost freedom. The education of their children and the preservation of their native language and customs were controlled by a foreign dictator in a manner no less ruthless than that demonstrated by the Soviets in Hungary today. Then, as now, priests were imprisoned, tortured and murdered, and the Catholic religion all but totally suppressed. Then, as now, the lands and property of the people were confiscated, their legal rights denied, their meetings banned, their very existence regarded with contempt - and with fear. A secret court - the Court of Castle Chamber - imposed a so-called justice no less harsh than that imposed by the commissar courts operating today in Budapest.
Massacre, murder, torture, cruel and inhuman punishment were widespread. When, in 1644, one Captain Swanley seized a ship, picked out from amongst its passengers 70 whom he considered to be Irish - and threw them overboard - the Journal of the House of Commons records that "Captain Swanley was called into the House, and thanks given to him for his good service, along with a chain of gold of 200 pounds in value." "To kill an Irishman," it was commonly said at that time, "was no more than to kill a dog."
But, just as the Hungarian people rose to cast off their chains when the Russians were troubled in Poland and elsewhere, so the Irish rose during the struggle between Throne and Parliament in 1641. Their initial successes, however, could not be maintained. Lacking arms, lacking experienced military leadership and sorely divided by factional disputes, their revolt was brutally crushed. On February 25, 1642, anticipating the slaughter of Budapest by more than 300 years, the English High Command gave the following order to its generals in Ireland: "Wound, kill, slay, and destroy, by all the ways and means you may, all rebels and adherents and relievers; and burn, spoil, wasted, consume and demolish all places, towns and houses, where the said rebels are, or have been, relieved and harboured, and all hay and corn there; and kill and destroy all the men inhabitants therein who are able to bear arms."
Overwhelmed with despair, outnumbered and outclassed, the Irish revolutionaries - led by a dedicated but untrained lawyer named Phelim O'Neill - were prepared to surrender all that remained. Then, suddenly, from the Boyne to the sea, from county to county, from mouth to mouth, the joyous word was passed: "Owen Roe has come!"
"Glad news for aching hearts comes from the northern shore!
Ho! Phelim, rouse your sorrowing soul, and raise your head once more!
Magennis and Maguire, come from out your 'leagured tower,
And spit upon their Saxon laws - defy their Saxon power!
For eyes are fired that erst shone mask, and tongues loosed that were dumb -
Up Gaels! Up Gaels! Revenge! Revenge! Owen Roe, Owen Roe is come!"
On July 6, 1642, having successfully evaded the British Fleet, Owen Roe O'Neill stepped ashore in the north of Donegal. Nephew of the famous Earl of Tyrone, already famous in his own right for his brilliant battle for Spain at Arras, the greatest Irish general of his time was home at last - and he rallied round him a once ragged army and a once despondent citizenry. Owen Roe "The Liberator", he was called - "the worthiest warrier of them all"; and ignoring the jealousies and the petty divisions that hampered his efforts, he went steadily forward to his appointed task of building an army and driving the enemy from his native shores.
Finally, in June of 1646, with a greatly outnumbered army and with no artillery whatsoever, he fought and won his greatest battle, the famous victory of Benburb. Launching a whirlwind attack with the cry of "Sancta Maria!", he wiped out the enemy's army in one brief hour, captured enough equipment to outfit his entire force, and left 3300 of the enemy dead on the battlefield. Fatalities in his own ranks numbered exactly 70.
It was a great day for the Irish - just as October 23, 1956 was a great day for the Hungarians - and these are the days that live in the minds of men long after all else has been crushed. For, although Owen Roe O'Neill was able to win several more victories, the Irish were unable to take full advantage of his successes. "In my time" he had warned, "and in all other times of which books tell us anything, foreign fingers close tightly on whatever comes within their grip."
But rival factions, ignoring his warnings, sued for an unworthy peace; dissident parties and jealous leaders fought among themselves and against Owen Roe; and thus a divided Irish nation was dismally unprepared for the invasion of Oliver Cromwell. And when at last they instinctively turned to the great liberator whom they had shamed and abused, Owen Roe fell ill before he could rejoin his army - and died the victim, it was said, of a poisoned nail placed in his shoe by an enemy agent.
The entire Irish nation was overwhelmed with grief.
"Did they dare, did they dare, to slay Owen Roe O'Neill?
Yes, they slew with poison him they had feared to meet with steel.
Had he lived - had he lived - our dear country had been free;
But he's dead - but he's dead - and 'tis slaves we'll ever be.
Sagest in the council was he, kindest in the Hall:
Sure we never won a battle - 'twas Owen won them all.
Soft as woman's was your voice, O'Neill; bright was your eye,
Oh! Why did you leave us, Owen? Why did you die?
Your troubles are all over, you're at rest with God on high;
But we're slaves, and we're orphans, Owen! - why did you die?
We're sheep without a Shepard, when the snow shuts out the sky-
Oh! why did you leave us, Owen? Why did you die?"
So ends the story of the Irish rising of 1641. O'Neill's wife fled into exile; his son was captured in battle and beheaded; and, their armies overwhelmed, the Irish people were brutally slaughtered and enslaved by a ruthless and relentless Cromwell. In still another parallel to today's tragic events in Hungary, the entire population of Ireland within a few years after O'Neill's death had declined by more than 50% - the result of human slaughter, mass deportation and a great exodus of exiles and emigrants.
"They are going, going, going, and we cannot bid them stay;
Their fields are now the stranger's, where the stranger's cattle stray…
But no foreign skies hold beauty like the rainy skies they knew;
Nor any night-wind cool the brow as did the foggy dew…".
To those hapless exiles from the Emerald Isle, as to those fleeing Budapest today, the prospects for the liberation of their homeland seemed very remote indeed. And yet, as Sir Roger Casement told the British jury that sentenced him to hang for high treason in 1914: "Ireland has outlived the failure of all her hopes - and yet she still hopes."
"Ireland has seen her sons - aye, and her daughters too - suffer from generation to generation always for the same cause, meeting always the same fate, and always at the hands of the same power; and yet always a fresh generation has passed on to withstand the same oppression. The cause that begets this indomitable persistency, preserving through centuries of misery the remembrance of lost liberty, this surely is the noblest cause men ever strove for, ever lived for, ever died for."
May this spirit, and this story, and all the stories of Irish martyrdom like it, be recalled tonight in the cellars of Budapest, in the council halls of the Kremlin, and in our nation's capital. And let us here tonight resolve that our nation will forever hold out its hands to those who struggle for freedom today, as Ireland struggled for a thousand years. We will not leave them to be "sheep without a Shepard when the snow shuts out the sky". Instead we will recognize what the events of the past year in Hungary and Poland have firmly demonstrated - as the struggles in Ireland and elsewhere demonstrated in centuries gone by - what must of necessity be the cornerstone of our foreign policy, and every nation's foreign policy, for all time to come - that there may be satellite governments, but there are never satellite peoples - and that whether a man be Hungarian or Irish, Catholic or Moslem, white or black, there forever burns within his breast the unquenchable desire to be free.
Here is some news footage on JFK's emotion trip to his ancestral home which he took just months before his assassination: