A Thousand Days of Grace

President John F. Kennedy. Photo by Jacques Lowe.
President John F. Kennedy. Photo by Jacques Lowe.

By Michael Quinlin, Contributor
December / January 2014

As we mark the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination Michael Quinlin reflects on Kennedy’s vision, his desire for a united Ireland, his love of poetry, and what his presidency meant to Irish Boston.

President Kennedy’s thousand days in office marked an epoch in the Boston Irish story. One man stepping forth from a marginalized community that had struggled mightily for so many generations, facing hostility and surviving on the edge of society, driven to success by fear of hunger and anger at prejudice, determined to right the wrongs for the sake of the children and future generations. JFK was the future generation that his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents had daydreamed about as they were toiling in America, saving their pennies, getting stronger, wiser, and warier. He may have represented the hopes and dreams of the world, and of a nation, but in essence JFK represented the pinnacle of immigrant dreams for millions of Irish around the world.

Kennedy’s optimism and resolve was emblematic of the American mind of the twentieth century, but he also brought a new level of sophistication to public life.  Louis M. Lyons wrote, “The elevation of the tone of the national life may be John Kennedy’s most enduring contribution to his country.” Along with his beautiful and stylish wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, JFK brought a savoir faire to the White House and created a magical mood that later moved Jacqueline to use the word Camelot to refer to her husband’s presidency. Both the president and his wife were lovers of the arts, and they surrounded themselves with singers, poets, dramatists, artists, and dancers. In a well-deserved nod to the power of poetry, Kennedy invited New England poet Robert Frost to read at his inauguration. Frost later told Kennedy, “You’re something of Irish and something of Harvard. Let me advise you, be more Irish than Harvard.”

On October 26, 1963, Kennedy gave a compelling address at Amherst College called “On Poetry and National Power,” in which he laid out a vision of American life to which the Irish, the politician, and the poet could relate.

“When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as a touchstone for our judgment. . . . I look forward to a great future for America – a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral strength, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty. . . . And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.”

Kennedy had shown more than a casual interest in Ireland, according to Arthur Mitchell, whose book JFK and His Irish Heritage traces the president’s youthful interests. Kennedy made the first of his six trips to Ireland in 1939, and in 1945 had the opportunity to meet Eamon de Valera, forging a friendship that lasted through Kennedy’s life. Kennedy had interviewed de Valera during that trip and submitted a thoughtful piece titled “De Valera Aims to Unite Ireland” to the New York Journal American in July 1945. He wrote, “De Valera is fighting the same relentless battle fought in the field during the Uprising of 1916, in the War of Independence and later in the [Irish] Civil War. He feels everything Ireland has gained has been given grudgingly and at the end of a long and bitter struggle. Always, it has been too little too late.” When de Valera visited Boston in 1948 to promote Irish unification, Kennedy met him at Logan Airport, even though his flight arrived after midnight. Kennedy also cosigned a bill sponsored by Rhode Island Congressman John E. Fogarty in 1951 calling for Irish unification, and he supported a similar Senate resolution.

A high point of the president’s time in office was his official visit to Ireland in June 1963. It captured the world’s imagination and shone a spotlight on the new Republic of Ireland. The visit was a triumphant, emotionally charged promenade in which the entire population of Ireland seemed to participate. Kennedy’s motorcade passed regally through the streets of Dublin, Cork, and Galway as thousands of proud Irish cheered him with tears of joy in their eyes, and the twin flags of Ireland and the United States waved madly for him. He visited the modest town of New Ross, Wexford, which twenty-five-year-old Patrick Kennedy had left in 1848 on a ship bound for Boston. On June 29, 1963, in Limerick, Ireland, Kennedy told the crowds of cheering Irish, “This is not the land of my birth, but it is the land for which I hold the greatest affection, and I will certainly come back in the springtime.” It was a sentiment wrought with love, promise, friendship, and possibility, and it was almost unbearable to recall when the president was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

Having followed the president’s visit to Ireland with immense pride, reveling in how he had turned the world’s attention to their small island off the coast of Europe, the Boston Irish community was stunned by the tragedy. They knew that he had grown up in a different society, one of privilege and wealth. But they considered him to be one of their own. To that postwar generation in particular, John F. Kennedy would always be one of them.

Shortly after his death the Kennedy family took up the task of creating a presidential library and formed a committee in 1964 to raise funds for the project: An Irish American Committee for the John F. Kennedy Memorial Fund in Boston, led by Cornelius O’Connor, Humphrey Mahoney and Michael Cummings. Its motto was “Modest Donations by Many Rather Than Large Endowments of a Wealthy Few.” As they had done for generations, the Boston Irish envisioned that the library would be built by the small cash donations of thousands of ordinary believers, the same way they had built their churches, parish schools, and colleges. The committee held a fund-raiser at the New State Ballroom on Massachusetts Avenue on May 17, 1964, and proudly donated $6,550.20 to the Kennedy Library Fund.

The family had selected Harvard Square in Cambridge as an ideal site for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, but numerous delays occurred in securing the land because of “bureaucratic red tape and political infighting.” The Library Committee looked at other possible sites, including Hyannis and the Charlestown Navy Yard.  Finally, in 1975 the committee formed an alliance with city and state leaders to select a parcel of land at Columbia Point in Dorchester, home of the University of Massachusetts on nine acres of land and three acres of mud flat, overlooking Boston Harbor as well as Boston’s skyline. State Senator Joseph B. Walsh of Dorchester introduced legislation for the land transfer, and in August 1976, Governor Michael Dukakis signed a bill permitting construction of the library.  Boston Globe reporter Robert Campbell described the design by architect I. M. Pei: “The Kennedy Library is lonely as a lighthouse or a boat. . . . It was Pei who chose this lonely site . . . it’s a place you see from afar, a place you sense yourself journeying toward.”

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum was formally dedicated on October 20, 1979, before seven thousand people. The event was described as “a sedate ceremony . . . sandwiched by a kind of affectionate hobnobbing and backslapping that characterized the JFK era.  With the same emotional mix that accompanies a jazzman’s funeral, the sobriety seemed only a loud whistle away from a friendly touch football game on the library’s landscaped grounds.”

Guest speaker President Jimmy Carter said:

President Kennedy understood the past and respected its shaping of the future. [He] entered the White House convinced that racial and religious discrimination was morally indefensible. He never failed to uphold liberty and condemn tyranny.   . . . The essence of President Kennedy’s message – the appeal for unselfish dedication to the common good – is more urgent than ever.

The podium that day was crowded with President Kennedy’s loved ones: former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and her children John Jr. and Caroline; his brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, cousins and in-laws. Any of them could have glanced out at Boston Harbor and settled their gaze on Deer Island, the last island separating the United States from Ireland. This is where their ancestors – the Kennedys, Fitzgeralds, Murphys, and Coxes—would have been stopped at the quarantine station before they were allowed to enter Boston, where history could then take its course.

From Irish Boston: A Lively Look at Boston’s Colorful Irish Past, 2nd edition, by Michael Quinlin. Published in October, 2013 by Globe Pequot Press

JFK Library and Museum
The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum at Columbia Point in Boston is the official library of the nation’s thirty-fifth president. The president’s thousand days in office are recreated in the exhibits revealing the legacy of Kennedy’s short but historically significant administration. The JFK Library continues to offer insight about the nation’s first Irish-Catholic president and also about his Irish-American background.  A significant companion of the Library is the Kennedy Library Foundation, led by Caroline Kennedy and headed by Thomas McNaught, which keeps the spirit of President Kennedy alive with engaging lectures and forums, a Profiles in Courage Award, given to public servants who demonstrate courage in their work and lives, and a New Frontier Award, given to a person under forty whose public service exemplifies the spirit of John F. Kennedy.

The JFK Library & Museum is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily. For more information, call 617-514-1600 or visit the web site www.jfklibrary.org.

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