Today sees the start of a series of events to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of John F Kennedy’s visit to Ireland. There has been a flurry of media interest as eye witnesses relive their memories of the visit in rosy tones, ignoring the faults and extolling the virtues of a veritable giant of popular culture. It brought to mind the above photograph which has remained in a family album in the attic for many years and which I now present. The smiling gentleman seated on the left, whose hand the young senator is warmly shaking, happens to be a relation of mine. I never met him as he died well before my time yet his name crops up once in a while in fireside conversations about the old days. He was Alderman Bernard Butler, an elected member of Dáil Éireann and once Lord Mayor of Dublin. It is in this latter role that he appears in the photo above, on an official trip to America, in 1954, to celebrate St Patrick’s Day in the New World, among the Irish-American elite. JFK is a new buck, the recently-elected Massachusetts senator, and the moment captured is a necessary part of political protocol – the paying of respect towards a representative of the ‘old country’. Jackie Kennedy was also present and appears in a few photos, exuding, along with her husband, a vibrant glamour unmatched by the august assembly. Except perhaps for Uncle Bernard who seems an avuncular prototype for JFK in charisma. A different charisma: the one is wisdom and experience, the other is confidence and youth.
When I first saw this photo as a child I took a certain satisfaction in the closeness of history, as though for an instant JFK had stepped down from the pedestal of myth and walked in the door of a familiar reality. For, you see, in Ireland – poor, slighted, hopelessly aspiring Ireland – JFK became something of a secular saint, even before his secular martyrdom. Catholics prayed novenas of gratitude to the God of political opportunity for placing ‘one of our own’ upon the throne of the empire of democracy. JFK’s privilege and many sins were overlooked to concentrate on the prodigal son returned to pay homage to his emigrant roots. The fiftieth anniversary of his 1963 visit to Ireland is proof of the undying attraction of reflected power. The colourful pageantry and national pride, once experienced, set the tone for future presidential visits. When Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama set foot in Ireland, a personalized ancestral tour, replete with symbolism, pathos, and a pint of plain, if not a little irony, became de rigeur. Smart, questioning, educated pillars of the community and morally robust men of faith checked their suspicions at the door, and voted instead for the populism and glamour of the stars and stripes.