Remarks at a “Friendly Sons Dinner” in Scranton, Pennsylvania

March 17, 1964


Scranton, PA

I’m aware, of course, of the notable number of sons of St. Patrick who live here in Scranton, and as a son of St. Patrick myself, I know how friendly you’ve been—to President Kennedy in everything he did—and to me whenever I’ve been here.

So I think of these things in addition to the bonds of common kinship that the Irish everywhere feel on St. Patrick’s Day. This is the day, you know, when legend has it that three requests were granted to St. Patrick by an angel of the Lord, in order to bring happiness and hope to the Irish.

First, that on this day the weather should always be fair to allow the faithful to attend church. Second, that on every Thursday and Saturday, twelve Irish souls should be freed from the pains of hell. And, third, that no outlander should ever rule over Ireland.

Though I have not received the latest weather report from the Emerald Isle, I am confident that no rain fell there today—officially. Who pays heed to a little Irish mist?

And I have reason to believe that the twelve Irishmen have been regularly released from the nether regions as promised. [U.S. District] Judge [Williams J.] Nealon just told me he thinks that several of them are here tonight.

We need have no concern over the third promise; in Ireland they are celebrating this day in freedom and liberty. But you and I know that life was not always this good for the Irish, either back in the old country or here in America.

There was, for example, that black day in February 1847 when it was announced in the House of Commons that fifteen thousand people a day were dying of starvation in Ireland…

So the Irish left Ireland. Many of them came here to the United States. They left behind hearts and fields and a nation yearning to be free. It is no wonder that James Joyce described the Atlantic as a bowl of bitter tears, and an earlier poet wrote, “They are going, going, going, and we cannot bid them stay.”

This country offered great advantages, even then. But no one familiar with the story of the Irish here would underrate the difficulties they faced after landing in the United States. As the first of the racial minorities, our forefathers were subject to every discrimination found wherever discrimination is known.

But many of them were gifted with boundless confidence that served them so well. One was a pugilist from my native Boston. John L. Sullivan won the heavyweight championship of the world not too many years after the flood tide of Irish emigration to this country, and in 1887 he toured the British Isles in triumph.

Some idea of Irish progress can be gathered from his cordial greeting to the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. John L. said: I’m proud to meet you. If you ever come to Boston be sure to look me up. I’ll see that you’re treated right.

And, referring to the Prince, he later added with Irish generosity “Anyone can see he’s a gentleman. He’s the kind of man you’d like to introduce to your family.”

Irish progress here has continued. It was some time ago that the late Fred Allen defined the “lace curtain Irish” as those who “have fruit in the house when no one’s sick.”

But it was less than nine months ago when President Kennedy, in touring Ireland, used to ask the crowds he talked with how many had cousins in America. The usual response was for nearly every hand in the crowd to be raised. It was with great delight that he was able to reply: “I’ve seen them, and they’re doing well.” And so, it is my great delight to be with you here tonight as we take a few moments to share the rich heritage of the Irish.

It’s worth noting, I think, that all the wealth of our legacy stems from a small island in the far Atlantic with a population one quarter of the size of the state of Pennsylvania.

The Irish have survived persecution in their own land and discrimination in ours. They have emerged from the shadow of subjugation into the sunlight of personal liberty and national independence. And they have shared the struggles for freedom of more than a score of nations across the globe…

Indeed, Ireland’s chief export has been neither potatoes nor linen but exiles and immigrants who have fought with sword and pen for freedom around the earth…

And other Irishmen in other years, going into battle with the Union Army—a green sprig in their hats—bore the brunt of the hopeless assaults on the Confederate heights at Fredericksburg. Twelve hundred soldiers of the Irish brigade went into action that bitterly cold December day in 1862. Only 280 survived, as president Kennedy noted last summer when he presented the brigade’s battle flag to the Irish people. “Never were men so brave,” General Robert E. Lee said of the Irish Brigade.

And of themselves, the Irish soldiers said:

War-battered dogs are we,
Gnawing a naked bone;
Fighters in every land and clime
For every cause but our own.

Today the Irish enjoy their freedom at a time when millions of people live in deprivation and despair under totalitarian dictatorships stretching eastward from the Wall in Berlin to the troubled borders of South Vietnam…

So the first point I’d like to make arises from the traditional Irish concern for freedom—everywhere. I know of few in our land—and I hope none in this room—who would ignore threats to peace and freedom in far-off places. We realized, as John Boyle O’Reilly once wrote, that:

The world is large, when its weary leagues
Two loving hearts divide;
But the world is small, when your enemy
Is loose on the other side.

No problem weighs heavier on the conscience of free men that the fate of millions in iron captivity. But what is taking place on the other side of the Iron Curtain should not be the only matter of concern to us who are committed to freedom. I would hope that none here would ignore the current struggle of some of our fellow citizens right here in the United States for their measure of freedom. In considering this, it may be helpful for us to recall some other conditions that existed in Ireland from 1691 until well in the nineteenth century again, which our forefathers fought.

We might remember, for instance, that in Ireland of 1691 no Irish Catholic could vote, serve on a jury, enter a university, become a lawyer, work for the government, or marry a Protestant. And our pride in the progress of the Irish is chilled by the tragic irony that it has not been progress for everyone.

We know that it has not been for humanity. I know because so much work of the Department of Justice today is devoted to securing these or comparable rights for all Americans in the United States in 1964.

There are Americans who—as the Irish did—still face discrimination in employment—sometimes open, sometimes hidden. There are cities in American today that are torn with strife over whether the Negro should be allowed to drive a garbage truck; and there are walls of silent conspiracy that block the progress of others because of race or creed, without regard to ability.

It is toward concern for these issues—and vigorous participation on the side of freedom—that our Irish heritage must impel us. If we are true to this heritage, we cannot stand aside.

There are two other areas of concern which I feel are of paramount importance and to which the Irish tradition speaks in ringing tones. One is the status of freedom in colonies, and second our relationship to the underdeveloped nations of the world.

The greatest enemy of freedom today, of course, is Communism, tyranny that holds its captives in viselike subjugation on a global scale. For nearly twenty years we and our allies have striven to halt the Communist advance. But one of the weaknesses in our common fear has been the restraint on freedom sponsored by our allies and accepted by ourselves.

The conduct of our foreign affairs should be consistently based on our recognition of every man’s rights to be economically and politically free. This is in the American tradition. We were, after all, the victor in our own war for independence.