The Irish

Seven years ago Kim and I traveled to Ireland to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. I have only been outside North America twice in my life, to meet Lucy in China and this trip to my ancestors’ homeland. Yesterday I was contacted by an uncle who is traveling to Ireland and wanted some of the genealogical research a good friend of mine gave me on the Little family tree. There are Littles from Ireland, Scotland and England but our clan are strictly Irish. We came to Halifax directly during the Potato Famine in the 1840’s and my brothers and I are still here!

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While visiting the west coast of Ireland we spent time in Galway. At a local park we came upon the Kennedy Memorial that marked the exact spot where President Kennedy spoke to an overflowing crowd that day, 55 years ago. That affection and that connection the Irish people felt to Kennedy and he to them was far more powerful that understood at the time. As the article reflects that I have posted below Kennedy was neither born in Ireland or visited the land of his ancestors until this trip.

I have never been interested in genealogy, the research offered by my friend Nathan came from his curiosity about my kin, not mine. One of my enduring concerns about this field of study is the extent to which families rest too easily on their own mandate to make a difference and claim some credit for someone they never knew nor really understand. Who cares that your ancestors did something remarkable 200 years ago, what are you doing now? But one thing I do find interesting is the deep connection a place can have on someone, the way landscape and culture intersect. I see that in our First Nations peoples. I think there was something in the landscape and the culture of the Irish people that connected to Kennedy that day in Galway and Dublin.

I expect Lucy will one day have such a moment when she travels back to China and the community where she was born and lived for the first 14 months of her life. It is how I feel walking the streets of Halifax. 176 years later the Littles are still here.

JFK in Ireland: His Words, and Shaw's, Still Echo

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By Carl M. Cannon

Fifty-five years ago today, while speaking to Ireland’s Parliament during a historic trip to his ancestral home, President John F. Kennedy charmed his hosts by quoting one of that lovely island’s famous playwrights.

“This is an extraordinary country,” JFK said, then added, “George Bernard Shaw, speaking as an Irishman, summed up an approach to life: Other people, he said, see things and say: ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were, and I say: ‘Why not?’”

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It’s unclear whether George Bernard Shaw was truly “speaking as an Irishman” when he wrote the lines cited by President Kennedy in Dublin. (They come from Shaw’s post-World War I collection of plays, “Back to Methuselah.”) That said, Shaw’s prescience was impressive: Three years before the killing of Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand ignited war in Europe, he wrote, “Assassination is the extreme form of censorship.”

As it happened, the Kennedys would prove a difficult clan to censor, even in the face of tragedy.

After JFK was slain on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Robert Kennedy turned the throwaway line his brother uttered in Dublin into a brief prose-poem that inspired a generation of men and women from Los Angeles to South Africa. On June 8, 1968, Edward M. Kennedy turned it into Bobby’s epitaph.

Whether they were Democrats, Republicans or Independents, on that sad Saturday when Robert F. Kennedy was laid to rest, Ted Kennedy’s fellow Americans couldn’t help but feel pangs of empathy as they watched him speak at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. His voice cracking with emotion, Teddy ended his elegy this way:

“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. To be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.

"Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:

"‘Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.’”

But all that lay ahead, albeit only five years in the future, on this date in 1963, when John Fitzgerald Kennedy addressed a joint session of Parliament in Dublin’s Leinster House. “This elegant building, as you know, was once the property of the Fitzgerald family,” he deadpanned, “but I have not come here to claim it.”

Kennedy had opened his remarks by regaling the Irish lawmakers with tales of the Irish Brigade, a storied U.S. Army unit that helped the North win the Civil War at places familiar to Americans, and which rattled off the president’s tongue in Dublin: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Antietam, Gettysburg.

Glancing at New York-born Irish President Eamon De Valera, Kennedy continued:

“I am deeply honored to be your guest in the Free Parliament of a free Ireland. If this nation had achieved its present political and economic stature a century or so ago, my great-grandfather might never have left … and I might, if fortunate, be sitting down there with you. Of course, if your own president had never left Brooklyn, he might be standing up here instead of me!”

Most U.S. presidents know how to be charming, especially when visiting Ireland -- and most especially if they themselves are of Irish extraction -- and Jack Kennedy was a charmer even under less circumstances. All that is by way of saying that winning over the Irish people was not a heavy lift for JFK. It is also undeniable, however, that the inverse was true: Kennedy was deeply moved by his experiences there, as he revealed at his last stop, in Limerick.

“So I carry with me, as I go, the warmest sentiments of appreciation to all of you,” he told the crowd. “This is a great country, with a great people, and I know that when I am back in Washington, while I will not see you, I will see you in my mind and feel all of your good wishes, as we all will, in our hearts.

“Last night, somebody sang a song, the words of which I am sure you know,” Kennedy then recalled before reciting one of the verses:

Come back to Erin, Mavourneen, Mavourneen

Come back around to the land of thy birth.

Come with the Shamrock in the springtime, Mavourneen.

“This is not the land of my birth,” John F. Kennedy told the people of Ireland on June 29, 1963, “but it is the land for which I hold the greatest affection and I certainly will come back in the springtime.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics.