Barack Obama is the sixth U.S. president to visit Ireland. But when he hoists a pint Monday in a pub in tiny Moneygall or addresses cheering crowds at College Green in Dublin, he will very much be in the shadow of the president who made history with his visit 48 years ago.
John F. Kennedy’s visit in 1963, which is still being studied and discussed, changed Ireland, changed Kennedy, and changed the expectations for all future presidential trips to the country that sent so many of its sons and daughters across the sea to America. Remarkably, it was the first presidential visit to Ireland, although Ulysses S. Grant visited after he left office and was considering another presidential bid.
No president since—not Ronald Reagan in 1984, not Bill Clinton in three visits, not Obama today, and definitely not the woeful Richard Nixon, who tried so hard in 1970 to duplicate the Kennedy magic—could hope to match what happened over those three and a half days in late June 1963.
For Ireland, that trip marked a coming of age. Though it claimed its independence 41 years earlier, Ireland was anything but a routine diplomatic stop. Kennedy wasn’t only the first American leader to visit Ireland. He was the first leader of any significant country to visit Ireland since independence.
Irish author Walter Bryan said the visit “did most to restore the self-confidence of Ireland,” adding with perhaps a little hyperbole that it was “probably the happiest and most hopeful event in Irish history since his ancestor defeated the Norsemen at Clontarf in 1014.” An official Irish government memo said Kennedy “stole the show.”
Kennedy himself showed a side of himself that had not been seen in America, wrote James Carroll, the Washington correspondent for the Louisville Courier Journal who five years ago authored a detailed, hour-by-hour examination of the trip, One of Ourselves: John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Ireland. The president who was always cool and reserved at home was expressive and emotional in Ireland; the man who was never heard singing at home because he had such difficulty carrying a tune sang loudly—and off key—in Ireland; the man who felt he had to avoid overt shows of Catholicism at home made the Sign of the Cross in Ireland—the only time he was seen doing that in public during his presidency.
Starting with Nixon, who felt he lost the 1960 election in part because of “the Irish vote”—especially an Irishman in Chicago named Richard Daley—all presidents since Kennedy have been urged to go to Ireland for political help with what are now 45 million Irish Catholics in the United States. But Kennedy had to fight advisers who strongly opposed the trip—for political reasons.
Aide Kenny O’Donnell was quoted by Carroll as telling Kennedy, “There’s no reason for you to go to Ireland. It would be a waste of time. It wouldn’t do you much good politically. You’ve got all the Irish votes in this country that you’ll ever get. If you go to Ireland, people will say it’s just a pleasure trip.”
Kennedy responded, “That’s exactly what I want: a pleasure trip to Ireland.”
When O’Donnell later reported more staff opposition to the trip, Kennedy angrily retorted, “Kenny, let me remind you of something. I am the president of the United States, not you. When I say I want to go to Ireland, it means that I’m going to Ireland. Make the arrangements.”
Acknowledging that Congress would see “no justification” for the trip and would be critical, Kennedy made one concession and agreed that the visit would be part of a much larger trip less susceptible to criticism. So the Ireland stop came right after the president’s historic “Ich bin ein Berliner” visit to the Berlin Wall and just before stops in London and Italy.
The payoff for the president personally was huge. “These were the three happiest days I’ve ever spent in my life,” a visibly moved Kennedy told a friend on the final day of the trip.
The next U.S. president to come calling was not quite as smitten. Driven in part by envy of Kennedy’s visit and in part by a desire to win Irish votes back home, Nixon made the trek in 1970. In Ireland, it has become known as “the forgotten visit.” The ostensible purpose was a visit to Timahoe in County Kildare to see where the small Quaker colony was that held his mother’s ancestors, Thomas and Sarah Milhous, before they left for Pennsylvania in 1729.
An Irish newspaper joked that Nixon would look back on the “most forgettable days of my life.” And the nostalgic feelings did not grow warmer when Nixon was caught on one of his presidential tapes revealing his true feelings for the Irish. “The Irish can’t drink,” Nixon was heard telling aide Charles W. Colson on February 13, 1973. “What you always have to remember with the Irish is they get mean. Virtually every Irish I’ve known gets mean when he drinks. Particularly the real Irish.”
That’s probably not why no president set foot in Ireland for 14 years. But when Ronald Reagan arrived June 1, 1984, it was Kennedy redux, even down to the rainbow that appeared behind Air Force One when it landed. (A rainbow had lit up the sky during JFK's trip, too.)
Thanks to a genealogical study done by Fr. Eanna Condon, a parish priest in tiny Ballyporeen, Reagan could visit the Church of the Assumption, where his great-grandfather Michael Regan had been baptized in 1830. And the town, in County Tipperary, renamed part of its local pub the Ronald Reagan Lounge. “I know at last whence I came,” said the president, who seemed as moved by the clamorous reception as Kennedy had been.
“This has given my soul a new contentment. And it is a joyous feeling. It is like coming home after a long journey,” he said after quaffing a pint of ale with the O’Farrell clan. Perhaps another element making him feel at home was the presence of loud protesters everywhere he went. The Irish, who had sent many nuns and missionaries to Central America, intensely disliked Reagan’s policies there. A poll conducted before the trip showed that only 27 percent of Irish wanted Reagan reelected.
When the next president came to Eire 11 years later, the protesters were gone and the adulation was back—but not because President Bill Clinton could show any direct ancestral link to the Emerald Isle. Indeed, despite the best efforts of the White House, genealogists could find no ancestral home on either the president’s maternal (Cassidy) or paternal (Blythe) side. But Clinton tried something different—he appealed to the Irish on substance rather than nostalgia.
Kennedy had purposely not done a press conference in Ireland because he did not want to field questions about the partition of the island’s six northern counties. And Reagan made only passing reference to what was known in Ireland as “the Troubles.” But Clinton embraced the quest for peace between the two warring communities. When he granted a long-denied visa to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in 1994—in part at the urging of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.—the British were furious. The Irish were delighted.
“If you were to define one moment in America’s involvement which was just critical, that was it,” current Irish Ambassador to the United States Michael Collins told National Journal last week. “It was very, very controversial. And it was against a lot of advice. And he’ll never be forgotten for all that meant.”
Clinton threw himself into the Irish peace process, visiting Ireland twice more and becoming the first president to visit Northern Ireland, going there all three times. He also appointed George Mitchell to oversee the peace talks that resulted in the Good Friday Agreement. And when he left office, Clinton had reached a level of popularity with the Irish people that matched Kennedy’s, in large part because they knew that he had bucked the advice of the entire foreign policy establishment to end the bloodshed on their island.
Today, the Irish are looking for something new from Obama when he becomes the sixth president to visit them. (George W. Bush, who was very unpopular in Ireland, never made a state visit to Eire but did drop in twice, once for a U.S.-E.U. summit and once to greet Iraq-bound troops at Shannon Airport.)
A nation shaken deeply by its debt problems, Ireland needs something that was Obama’s specialty in his 2008 campaign—hope. “In the election, his message was ‘Yes, you can,’” said Collins. “Well, it is pretty important for him to say to Ireland, ‘Yes, you can, too. Yes, you can, too.’”