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John F. Kennedy addressing the Dáil during his visit to Ireland. Press Association

Column Some day we might have an Ireland that truly meets the aspirations of JFK

Fifty years ago, JFK said Ireland had something to give to the world. That’s still true, writes Ben English.

AMERICANS ARE EXPECTED to come together today to reflect on the day when the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was fatally shot while riding in a motorcade with his wife in Dallas, Texas.

The death of the charismatic 46-year-old leader reverberated around the world with some saying it changed America forever. In Ireland at the time, news of his death was met with particular poignancy.

No more than four months prior to his assassination, Kennedy or JFK as he became known, had visited Ireland in what is still seen today as a major landmark in Irish-US relations. President Kennedy’s trip to Ireland was notable, in that it marked the first visit of an Irish-American President, the first of a Catholic President, and the first of a sitting President.

More importantly, his speech to Dáil Eireann on June 28th 1963 awoke the conscience of a tiny nation and allowed it to aspire to greater heights. Half a century later, it seems like a fitting time to evaluate whether JFK’s vision for Ireland has truly been realised.

The Ireland of 1963

The visit of the JFK was not just a return “home” for the President with strong roots in New Ross, Co. Wexford. Many of his closest aides noted after his trip that they had never seen him happier. For the Irish public, his visit illustrated an international acknowledgement of Ireland’s achievements at the time, many of which had occurred in the face of great domestic and international adversity.

“You have modernized your economy, harnessed your rivers, diversified your industry, liberalized your trade, electrified your farms, accelerated your rate of growth, and improved the living standards of your people”, praised JFK.

Addressing the Dáil, JFK spoke of an Ireland whose “progress was not yet complete”, remarking that our achievements—economic and political—were not an end but a beginning. While paying tribute to Ireland’s accomplishments, what was most notable was the President’s vision for Ireland’s future.

This was a future which he said would be as promising as our past was proud. Before concluding that Ireland’s hour had come, he added that our destiny “lies not as a peaceful island in a sea of troubles, but as a maker and shaper of world peace”.

Similar to the visit of President Barack Obama in May 2011, JFK’s words sent a message that Ireland could be an international player and that the United States would accompany us every step of the way.


US President Barack Obama makes his key notes speech at College Green, Dublin. (Maxwells/PA Images)

The Ireland of Today

Regardless of our age or politics, we can all agree that the Ireland we live in today is an entirely different country to the one which JFK visited 50 years ago.

We’ve extended official welcomes to two more American Presidents and the Queen of England. We’ve said goodbye to currencies and conflicts. We’ve had Italia 90, a long awaited Grand Slam, five popes, six Presidents, and nine Taoisigh. The Celtic Tiger roared and faded with a whimper and the Troika have come and gone, as have some questionable fashion styles and dodgy hair cuts over the last 50 years.

Despite these changes and more, a great deal remains the same. Have Ireland’s fortunes come full circle in 50 years?

The period of emigration that JFK said had passed has returned, with many of Ireland’s brightest taking their talents to pastures new. A UCC study released earlier this year found that emigration levels are now four times as high as they were just seven years ago, while 62 per cent of recent emigrants have a college qualification of three years or more.

Ireland’s latest unemployment figures stand at 13.2 per cent and while a great deal has been done to aid our economic recovery, there is far more to do. The same can be said for Ireland’s role in shaping a peaceful future in Northern Ireland as we face a challenge in sustaining the tremendous progress achieved through the Good Friday Agreement.

While JFK commented on improving standards for our young people, there are still 730,000 living in poverty with 1 in 5 children of being part of that figure. Ireland’s hour had come 50 years ago, but has it passed?

“Ireland’s Promise”

The answer to this question lies somewhere within what President Barack Obama called a ”little country, that inspires the biggest things”. Only this week, the Wall Street Journal declared Ireland as Europe’s most entrepreneurial country, attracting four times as much venture-capital funding per capita than the European average.

Positive nuggets constantly appear in daily media but Ireland needs strong, long term solutions to maximise its full potential. The strength of our future lies in our young people. So much of the Celtic Tiger was fueled by strong Foreign Direct Investment, where 25 of the world’s top 50 companies located in Ireland, citing our young, educated work force as a key pull factor.

Today, so much of that talent can be found in Australia, Canada and the US as Ireland runs the risk of losing its greatest resource. This issue is not isolated but one of many issues that require attention— health care, education, and social inequality are equally important. But the one thread of optimism throughout our shortcomings is that these are all obstacles that can be overcome.

Fifty years ago, JFK was unequivocal in his faith in the Irish ability in that Ireland had “something to give to the world”. This remains true but it can only happen in changing the national psyche once more to one of positivism.


US President John F. Kennedy acknowledging the cheers of the crowd when he visits New Ross. (PA Images)

As Ireland removes is economic crutches and begins to walk on its own once more, our government has an opportunity to rebuild Ireland once more. In doing so, we may, some day have an Ireland that truly meets the aspirations of JFK– resilient, creative, fearless, and determined to make a mark on the world by not settling for what we are, but what we can be. 50 years after JFK’s visit offers the perfect chance to begin this process.

Ben English is a student of Government at University College Cork, an alumnus of the Washington Ireland Program, and a former intern in the United States Congress. He tweets at @Benglish9.

Read: The Kennedy Assassination: Timeline of the day>

Read: My favourite speech: Micheál Martin>

In photos: JFK visits Ireland in 1963>

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