Remarks by Ambassador Anderson at launch of JFK centenary programme Kennedy Center, Sunday, 29 May 2016
It feels entirely fitting that the programme of events marking the centenary of the birth of President Kennedy is being launched in the course of the Ireland 100 Festival. There is a special symmetry, as the fates again weave together stories that were so interwoven in life.
Let us state it loudly and clearly and simply: John Fitzgerald Kennedy loved Ireland beyond any other country, except his own, and we loved and cherished him in return.
I want to take you back to President Kennedy’s four-day visit to Ireland in June 1963 – a visit that was emblematic of so much, one that is forever written on our hearts and stored in our memories.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy came as a member of our extended family, someone whose eight great grandparents had all emigrated from Ireland. He came as the first sitting President of the US to visit our country, and the first foreign leader to address our Parliament. He came in all his youth and vigour, with all his grace and optimism, his spontaneity and wit.
He arrived with us in buoyant mood, fresh from that immortal speech in Berlin, ready to embrace his ancestral homeland. He found in Ireland even more than he could have imagined. There are experiences - in the words of Seamus Heaney - that come at us “sideways, and catch the heart off guard, and blow it open”. President Kennedy indeed had his heart blown open during those four days. As one of his closest advisers put it, he was “never easier, happier . . . more completely himself than during those days”.
For our part, we loved who he was and what he stood for. It went way beyond the charm and the ease and the eloquence. We were delighted that, when he addressed the Irish Parliament, he quoted Joyce, and Benjamin Franklin, and Parnell, Yeats, Grattan, John Boyle O’Reilly, and George Bernard Shaw. But, beyond the wonderful felicity of language, it was the deeper notes we listened to, and that continued to vibrate long after he left our shores.
The young President instinctively connected with us. He understood both our pride and our vulnerability, our dual identity as ancient country and young nation. He rejoiced in the shared past, but his eyes were firmly fixed on the future. He held out a vision of who we could be, of the destiny we could reach for, of where that quintessentially Irish “combination of hope, confidence and imagination” could lead us.
More than fifty years have passed, and time has eroded some of the innocence of those days. The historians have given us a more nuanced picture of the President and his times. And we have become in some ways a different country – more mature, more diverse, fully at home within the European family even as the bonds with America continue to strengthen.
But the deep and true notes from all those years ago continue to vibrate today.
Now more than ever, we need President Kennedy’s vision for the world and for America. A world that values multilateralism and understands the strength of soft power. An America of ambition and confidence, its windows wide open to the world, continually renewed and refreshed by the exchange of ideas and interplay of cultures.
As he left Ireland, President Kennedy promised to come back in the springtime. The poignancy of that unfulfilled promised has stayed with us throughout all the intervening decades. But now, in the late springtime of 2016, as we commemorate our own important centenary, the artists of Ireland have made the journey in the reverse direction. They have brought their music and songs and words to the Kennedy Center, and as we hear them echo throughout this majestic building,it feels as if a circle is being closed.
Always, in Ireland and wherever green is worn, President Kennedy will have a special place in our hearts.