John F. Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in 1963 was a momentous occasion for the then young, free country of Ireland.
It was the first time that a sitting American president had visited Ireland, which alone was something special, add on his Irish descent and his visit turned into a true spectacle. By the end of his short 3-day trip, John F. Kennedy would become one of Ireland’s most beloved figures in history.
For the people of Ireland, Kennedy's visit was a historic event not only because of his position and lineage, but because of what he represented: hope for change. At the time, the Irish citizens were eager to move on from the decades of civil war and upheaval that had defined their 20th century. A visit from the energetic, Irish leader of the Free World would bring them the optimism they needed to turn the page.
Meanwhile in America, the Irish were not much better off. While Kennedy’s parents and grandparents had taken the brunt of the difficulties, there was still much opposition to the Irishman running for president on account of his religion. However, this stigma never deterred Kennedy from embracing his Irishness and being curious about the land of his ancestors, so much so, he would visit Ireland again and again throughout his young life and again as President of the United States.
“This is not the land of my birth, but it is the land for which I hold the most affection.”
Kennedy would visit Ireland four times throughout his life, with his status growing considerably between each visit.
His first was in the summer of 1945 at the age of twenty-eight as a reporter for the Hearst newspaper group covering post-war Europe. This job took him to England, France, Germany, and Ireland. And interestingly, even though Ireland remained neutral during the war, Kennedy had managed to persuade his bosses to let him go over and write an article on the country.
By his second visit in the fall of 1947, Kennedy was a congressman for a working-class, Irish district of Boston and had decided to take a trip back to Ireland with the intention of tracing his lineage. It was on this visit that he first met his closest relative, Mary Ryan, a third cousin on his father’s side. While their house was much less extravagant than Kennedy had been used to, he was delighted to hear stories of his grandfather and the other family members who had stayed behind. This visit was one that he, “left in a flow of nostalgia and sentiment.”
His third visit was the most formal up until this point. It occurred in 1955 when Kennedy was then Senator of Massachusetts and was made at his wife’s recommendation. This one would not be a casual vacation however, it was more of a meet and greet with Irish dignitaries to help uplift Kennedy’s image with Irish-American voters at home.
And of course, his fourth and final visit was eight years later as President of the United States.
Context Surrounding His Presidential Visit
Kennedy’s presidential visit to Ireland would occur in June of 1963 as part of a ten-day European tour in which he was to also visit the countries of Germany , Italy, and England.
When it came to the trip in the media, all eyes were on Berlin and what the President would say there. It had not yet been a year since the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War was front and center of international affairs - with Berlin then split in half. At this moment Europe was weak and needed strong leadership. There was concern across the Europe on if the Iron Curtain would extend its ideology into the west.
It was very important to Kennedy to visit Ireland, but he worried that he had no compelling reason to go and he knew it would be viewed by Congress and the media as an indulgent, sentimental pleasure trip. But undeterred he began to make plans for a visit to the old country.
President Kennedy told the Irish ambassador to the U.S. on their traditional ceremony for St Patrick’s Day in 1963 that, “I’m glad to say that I can go to Ireland and I’d like you to find out if that’s agreeable with your government.”
A flattered and excited Ambassador Kiernan responded, “The dates, you may take it straight away without referring to the government, will be agreeable and you can come and have a comfortable rest.” The ambassador knew that the Irish government had then been deeply hoping and plotting to arrange a visit to the country ever since Kennedy became president.
A misunderstood Kennedy replied, “I don’t want to rest in Ireland. I want to go around and meet people. I want to meet plenty of people. I don’t want to stay in Dublin. I don’t want too many official receptions. I don’t want any of the stuffed shirt arrangement, if you can avoid it. But it certainly won’t be a rest. The more I can cover, the better it will be. That’s what I call a rest.”
And he kept his word.
Travel along President Kennedy's 3-day trip in Ireland step-by-step by viewing our map experience here.