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The assassination of John F. Kennedy sixty years ago in Dallas is remembered in large part for all of the things it is reputed to have shattered: postwar American optimism, faith in American institutions, and so on. If JFK had got out of Dealey Plaza alive, goes the lament, how different things might have been.

But something else came to an end that day, unnoticed, perhaps, yet remarkable in its own way: The high noon of the Irish Catholic diaspora as a force in world politics. Two great nations of the Old and New Worlds, each with intercontinental reach and influence, were in the hands of two of the most charismatic and consequential leaders of the postwar era, both men of Irish heritage. Kennedy held the White House; and across the Atlantic, in the Élysée Palace in Paris, Charles de Gaulle was managing the destiny of France.  

The White House was to end up in diasporic hands again, of course: Ronald Reagan’s (though a Protestant, Reagan had Catholic roots in County Tipperary) and the current president’s. But it was never the same. Kennedy was a mold-breaker,  shattering the notion that a Catholic could not become commander in chief of the United States. De Gaulle was the one who asked, in the wake of catastrophe: “Has the last word been said? Must hope disappear? Is defeat final? No!” Both men had records of quite startling physical courage in battle. And even if they cut very different figures in many ways, both Kennedy and de Gaulle had emerged from the fires of the first half of the century, medals on their chests, to haul their countries forward through further enormous challenges. It was a remarkable moment of enormous power concentrated in the hands of two men whose forefathers had left Ireland at different times and for different reasons, none of them good.      

Jack Kennedy’s Irish roots are well known. His ancestors had emigrated to America during the calamitous nineteenth century. (Ireland is the only country in the world with fewer people now than 180 years ago.) One great-grandfather, Patrick Kennedy, escaped the Great Famine for East Boston where he worked as a cooper before dying of cholera at thirty-five, leaving behind his wife, Bridget, and four children. Another great-grandfather, Thomas Fitzgerald, the father of eleven children, became a street pedlar. Within the space of a few generations, these men’s descendants formed one of the richest and most powerful families in America. 

De Gaulle’s Irishry extends further back in history to another tumultuous period. He was descended, on his mother’s side, from the MacCartans, who were among the so-called “Wild Geese”: Irish soldiers who, from the seventeenth century onward, especially after the cataclysmic defeat at the Battle of the Boyne, left to find employment with the Catholic armies of Europe. Général de Gaulle’s ancestors settled in the far north of France where traditions of Catholic paternalism were particularly strong and where Charles was born in 1890. 

De Gaulle’s upbringing was intensely religious. At the age of sixteen, he was a volunteer stretcher-bearer at Lourdes. His grandmother Joséphine wrote novels that pilloried industrialists, in the spirit of Rerum Novarum, for reducing workers to beasts of burden. She also wrote a biography of Irishman Daniel O’Connell, who led the drive for Catholic emancipation in the nineteenth century. As his sexual conduct suggests, Kennedy wore his faith more lightly, giving it most thought, perhaps, when working out how to get America to elect its first Catholic president. 

Ireland beckoned both men and they responded. Kennedy visited in 1963, around four months before his death. De Gaulle came in 1969, less than a fortnight after resigning as Président de la République. Waiting to greet both leaders, as president of Ireland, was Éamon de Valera, another giant of the diaspora, born in New York City in 1892 to an Irish mother and a mysterious Spanish father. Having fought in the Easter Rising of 1916, “Dev” finally retired from politics in 1973.  

One could play many games of compare-and-contrast with these three men, enumerating their strengths and failings, outlining the shape of their beliefs. But they certainly shared a notable disposition for conjuring great visions for the future of their nations from the stuff of the past: one thinks of Kennedy’s “New Frontier” speech upon accepting the Democratic Party nomination in 1960; or of de Gaulle’s Mémoires de guerre, which famously begins “Toute ma vie, je me suis fait une certaine idée de la France” (All my life, I have had a certain idea of France), or of de Valera’s St. Patrick’s Day address of 1943, much derided since, but perhaps capable of touching a nerve now in the country with the highest cocaine use in the European Union.

The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit—a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live.

Did their common grounding in the Catholic faith give these Irishmen (Irishmen, that is, at one or several removes) the ability to have and articulate such visions? Of course, the Bible, with its stories of the promised land and images of a city upon the hill, has inspired Christian politicians of every stripe to paint pictures of brighter days ahead. But Kennedy, de Gaulle, and de Valera also shared the additional experience of kneeling before Catholic altars, eyes fixed on the promise of future glory, awaiting the lifting of the veil between earth and the celestial city, seeking a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Did something of this orientation make its way into their own visionary reachings? 

If it did, the moment when such things happened seems to have passed. No one, not even his staunchest admirers, would claim that Joe Biden has articulated a compelling vision for America to rally around. The chances of another distant son of the Wild Geese leading a country like France have receded beyond sight. No Irish president since de Valera has matched his stature. And Ireland does not seem likely to send forth sons and daughters with imaginations formed at the altar rails for some time to come.

John Duggan writes from Surrey, ­England.

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Image by Luca Sartoni licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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