When Patrick Kennedy from Dunganstown, County Wexford, left Ireland with his fiancée Bridget Murphy during the Great Famine of the 1840s, he could not have imagined that his great-grandson would become the leader of the young new country where he was seeking refuge.
Especially since he brought with him nothing but a strong religious faith and a desire for liberty, as President Kennedy famously told the people of Ireland when he returned to the land of his ancestors over 100 years later in June 1963.
It is an honour to be in this beautiful building, dedicated to the life and legacy of President Kennedy, as we in turn mark the 60th anniversary of his visit, the first of any sitting United States President to Ireland.
Why does his visit continue to resonate? I believe it is because of the values that President Kennedy stood for, and for what he came to represent.
Take his immigrant roots: like many emigrants, his family cherished their links with their ancestral homeland. All 8 of his great-grandparents came from Ireland. It was, President Kennedy said, “not the land of my birth, but … the land for which I hold the most affection”.
But his is not just an Irish story, it is an immigrant story. I am aware this building regularly hosts ceremonies for new citizens of the United States. It must, I think, be profoundly meaningful for them to hear how an immigrant family which came to this country with so little, could in the space of a few generations, rise to the very pinnacle of political life. President Kennedy has become a symbol of what is possible for immigrants in this country.
President Kennedy is also a symbol of how Ireland shaped America and of how America in turn shaped Ireland. He was the first foreign leader to address our legislature, Dáil Éireann. He told us that “our two nations, divided by distance, have been united by history. No people ever believed more deeply in the cause of Irish freedom than the people of the United States, and no country contributed more to building my own than your sons and daughters.”
Good Friday Agreement
This year we also mark another important anniversary: the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. And here I want to acknowledge the broader legacy of the Kennedy family, their public service, and the contribution of many other American politicians, on both sides of the aisle, to peace and prosperity on the island of Ireland. I’m thinking in particular of the enormous contributions made by Senator Ted Kennedy, Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, Representative Joe Kennedy II and now Special Envoy Joe Kennedy III.
Because, while the Good Friday Agreement belongs first and foremost to the people of Northern Ireland, it was, in many ways, “made in America”. US politicians, businesspeople and the community played a vital role on the path to peaceful and just political settlement in Northern Ireland.
The transformative effects of the Good Friday Agreement are hard to exaggerate – today Northern Ireland is at peace, with a growing economy and thriving civil society, where young adults have no memory of the conflict. And as we continue to work to deliver upon the promises of the Good Friday Agreement, the ongoing support of the United States remains invaluable.
Ireland’s role on the global stage
When he visited, President Kennedy told us that Ireland’s hour had come, and that her role on the global stage was to ensure peace and freedom. Ireland listened to his call.
We may be a small country, but we play an active role in the world, promoting the rules-based international order. We have just completed a two-year term on the United Nations Security Council, where working with partners, including the United States, we advanced a number of important global issues, on peacebuilding, conflict prevention, and working to ensure accountability for serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. We see our role in the world as being shaped by our history. Our Development Cooperation programme assists the poorest people around the globe and has been assessed by the OECD to be among the world’s most effective.
Like the United States, Ireland continues to stand by the people of Ukraine, offering support to those fleeing the conflict. To date, Ireland has welcomed over 75,000 Ukrainians, which is more than 1% of our total population.
President Kennedy’s great-grandparents fled a land of poverty and famine. But Ireland’s relationship with the United States is no longer defined by the emigrant experience. The changes since President Kennedy’s time are profound: in 1963, Ireland’s total exports were just over $740 million dollars. Last year they were more than $204 billion.
We have benefitted of course from strong investment from the United States: American companies employ almost two hundred thousand people in Ireland. But this economic relationship is now a two-way street: Irish companies operate in all fifty states and employ 110,000 people in the United States. And Ireland, with a population smaller than Massachusetts, is the ninth-largest source of Foreign Direct Investment to the United States. Our two countries now enjoy a mutually beneficial economic partnership.
The relationship between Ireland and the United States, stretching back over centuries, continues to grow and evolve. We in Ireland remember President Kennedy’s visit because, in many ways, it is a symbol of that relationship.
In his short time as President, he left a profound legacy in the United States; his words and actions continue to inspire today. But on a short trip – just four days in June 1963 – he left a profound legacy in Ireland too.
His visit to our country is woven into our collective memory. His youth, enthusiasm, wonderful oratory and the impression he made left a lasting legacy and inspired a generation of Irish people to believe that the only limitations on Ireland were those we placed upon ourselves.
His visit is a symbol of the broader relationship between our two countries. Of how Ireland shaped the United States, and how the United States in turn has shaped Ireland. A symbol of our emigrant history that affected so many of our sons and daughters. Of Ireland taking its place in the world to promote the values of peace and democracy. And of how our diaspora abroad has played its part in bringing peace and prosperity to their ancestral homeland.
Most of all, it is the symbol of a deep connection between our two countries that stretches back generations, and that strengthens even as it evolves. So on that note I would like to wish you all, here, in this most Irish of American cities, in a building dedicated to one of Ireland’s and America’s most cherished sons, a very Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
Lá fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh.