He was the first American President to visit Ireland, the country from which all eight of his great-grandparents had fled in the 19th century. John Fitzgerald Kennedy described his visit to Ireland in June 1963 as one of the most emotional periods of his life. One of the highlights of the trip was when he became the first US Head of State to address Dail Eireann. In the course of an enthusiastically received speech he referred to the country of his ancestry as ‘one of the youngest of nations, and the oldest of civilisations’.
He didn’t get the speech off to a very good start, however, beginning with three errors in the first couple of minutes, two in the very first line. He was presenting the Dail with a flag of the Irish Brigade. The Brigade suffered horrendous casualties at the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. Their serving complement was reduced from around 1600 to 250 after the battle. Kennedy began his speech thus:
The 13th day of September, 1862, will be a day long remembered in American history. At Fredericksburg, Maryland, thousands of men fought and died on one of the bloodiest battlefields of the American Civil War.
Fredericksburg was all of the above, except that the battle was being fought on 13 December in Virginia, not September in Maryland. The Irish Brigade would have been heavily involved in the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. The President also referred to the Brigade having been led into battle by its commander Thomas Francis Meagher. By and large that was the case, but not at Fredericksburg. Meagher was recovering from wounds at the time. He did not lead his troops into battle, he sent them into battle.
Much has been made of the joking reference of Kennedy to one of the former occupants of Leinster House, the putative Dublin leader of the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798, Lord Edward Fitzgerald. The President related how Fitzgerald had once written to his mother about the ancestral pile, that ‘Leinster House does not inspire the brightest ideas.’ The quip was greeted with laughter that was closer to raucous than polite. One person, however, was definitely not amused. That was President Eamon de Valera. According to Ryan Tubridy’s book on the Kennedy visit, JFK in Ireland, the former Fianna Fail Taoiseach took the President to task about the remark, thinking that it reflected badly on the acumen of the assembled TDs. He later, according to Sean Lemass, sought to have the joke expunged from the Dail record. But the Long Fellow has been cheated by the internet. Despite his best efforts, when you go online and seek out the speech on the Oireachtas website, there is the Fitzgerald joke in all its mordant humour.
However the Dail record has been altered in at least one respect. About twelve minutes into his address the President invoked the motive force behind the so-called Patriot parliament of the 1780s and 90s, Henry Grattan. In audio and video recordings he is heard clearly to say ’83 years ago Henry Grattan, demanding the more independent Irish Parliament that would always bear his name, denounced those who were satisfied merely by new grants of economic opportunity.’ He probably meant to say 183 years ago, which would have been 1780. As Grattan had died in 1820 he would not have been around to say anything very much 83 years before. But the Dail record has been amended to read … ‘Over 150 years ago, Henry Grattan, demanding the more independent Irish Parliament that would always bear his name, denounced those who were satisfied merely by new grants of economic opportunity.’ While the scribes were happy to allow the President to falsify American history he was not going to be permitted to misplace our Henry Grattan by a century.
The President also chose this occasion to use one of those memorable phrases that is most associated with him. ‘Other peoples … see things and say: `Why?’ … But I dream things that never were—and I say: `Why not?.’ The phrase has also been attributed to his brother Robert. In fact – as JFK acknowledged at the time, it comes from George Bernard Shaw, featuring in his play Back to Methusaleh.
He left the country after four days, promising to return. He never did, an assassin’s bullet five months later made sure of that.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, addressed Dail Eireann fifty years ago, on this day.