John F. Kennedy, an Irish-American and the first Catholic to become president of the United States, arrives in Ireland for a visit on this day in 1963.
Kennedy was proud of his Irish roots and made a special visit to his ancestral home in Dunganstown, County Wexford, while in the country. There, he was greeted by a crowd waving both American and Irish flags and was serenaded by a boys choir that sang “The Boys of Wexford.” According to the BBC report that day, Kennedy broke away from his bodyguards and joined the choir for the second chorus, prompting misty-eyed reactions from both observers and the press.
Kennedy met with 15 members of his extended Irish family at the Kennedy homestead in Dunganstown. There he enjoyed a cup of tea and some cake and made a toast to “all those Kennedys who went and all those Kennedys who stayed.” His great-grandfather Thomas Fitzgerald had left Ireland for the United States in the middle of the Great Famine of 1848 and settled in Boston, becoming a cooper. Generations of his descendants went on to make their mark on American politics.
JFK’s father, Joseph Kennedy, was a successful businessman who was highly influential in state and national politics. He served as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s chairman of the Securities Exchange Commission from 1933 to 1935 and as ambassador to England from 1938 to 1940. John F. Kennedy served as president from 1961 to 1963, before being assassinated. Robert F. Kennedy, John’s brother, served as attorney general during his administration and ran for president in 1968 before he too was assassinated. Another of Joseph’s sons, former Massachusetts Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy, also ran for president in 1979. The Kennedy political tradition continued with a fourth (American-born) generation including, but unlikely to be limited to, U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), Massachusetts Representative Joseph Kennedy II and Maryland state legislator Mark Kennedy Shriver.
At the time of JFK’s visit to Ireland, the predominantly Catholic Irish Republic had been an independent nation for 41 years. The northern counties of the island, however, remained part of the largely Protestant British Empire and still suffered from long-standing sectarian violence. The next day, in Dublin, Kennedy spoke before the Irish parliament, where he openly condemned Britain’s history of persecuting Irish Catholics. Two days later, he traveled to England, America’s oldest ally, to meet with British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan and his cabinet to discuss setting up a pro-democratic regime in British Guyana.