Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy before the Irish Fellowship Club, Chicago, Illinois, March 17, 1956

I am glad to be in Chicago tonight, not only because my sister and her husband live here, but because I feel strongly the ties of a common kinship. All of us of Irish descent are bound together by the ties that come from a common experience, experience which may exist only in memories and in legend, but which is real enough to those who possess it. And thus whether we live in Cork or Boston, Chicago or Sydney, we are all members of a great family which is linked together by that strongest of chains – a common past. It is strange to think that the wellspring from which this fraternal empire has sprung is a small island in the far Atlantic with a population one-third the size of that of this prairie state. But this is the source, and it is to this green and misty island that we turn tonight and to its patron saint, Saint Patrick.

It is also fitting that we remember at this time three requests granted St. Patrick by the Angel of the Lord, in order to bring happiness and hope to the Irish: first, that the weather should always be fair on his special day to allow the faithful to attend the services of the church; secondly, that every Thursday and every Saturday twelve souls of the Irish people should be freed from the pains of Hell; and third, that no outlander should ever rule over Ireland.

I have not heard a weather report from the Emerald Isle tonight, but I am certain that no rain fell – officially. Who pays any heed to a little Irish mist? And I have no doubt that twelve Irishmen have been freed from the nether regions this very Saturday. In fact, the toastmaster tells me he thinks he saw several of them here tonight – Governor Stevenson, I understand, was trying last week to get several dozen released in time for the New Hampshire primary. But certainly we need no report to tell us that tonight no outlander rules over Eire; and the Irish people are celebrating this day in peace and in liberty.

But it is not a bitter and tragic irony that the Irish should now enjoy their freedom at a time when personal liberty and national independence have become the most critical issues of our time – whether they involve millions struggling to end the yoke of Western Colonialism, or billions held in an iron captivity in areas stretching in a great half circle from the plains beyond the captive city of Warsaw in the West to the Red River Delta beyond the trampled city of Hanoi in the East. For as the Irish have finally emerged from the shadow of subjugation, the eclipse of a new Age of Tyranny has darkened the skies of many ancient states which had enjoyed a long history of personal liberty and national independence. Today, while free Irishmen everywhere marched to the tune of "O'Donnell Abu" and "The Irish Captain," only hobnail boots clattering on darkened streets rang out in these enslaved nations.

I know of a few men in our land, and none in this room, who would ignore these tyrannies as far-off troubles of no concern at home. For we realize, as John Boyle O'Reilly once wrote, that:

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

I do not maintain that the Irish were the only race to display extraordinary devotion to liberty, or the only people to struggle unceasingly for their national independence. History proves otherwise. But the special contribution of the Irish, I believe – the emerald thread that runs throughout the tapestry of their past – has been the constancy, the endurance, the faith that they displayed through endless centuries of foreign oppression – centuries in which even the most rudimentary religious and civil rights were denied to them.

For all the classic weapons of oppression were employed to break the will of the Irish. Religious persecution was encouraged – mass starvation was ignored. On February 19, 1847, it was announced in the House of Commons that 15,000 persons were dying of starvation in Ireland every day; and Queen Victoria was so moved by this pitiful news that she contributed five pounds to the society for Irish relief. We should not be too quick to condemn the good Queen – for in those days the English pound was no doubt worth more than it is today.

Even assassination was employed to end resistance. Listen, if you will, to the wild melancholy of the Irish after the murder by Cromwell's agents of their beloved Chieftain, Owen Roe O'Neill:

"Sagest in the council was he, kindest in the Hall:
Sure we never won a battle – 'twas Owen won them all.
Soft as woman's was your voice, O'Neill, bright was your eye.
Oh! why did you leave us, Owen? Why did you die

Your troubles are all over, you're at rest with God on high:
But we're slaves, and we're orphans, Owen! – why did you die?
We're sheep without a shepherd, when the snow shuts out the sky –
Oh! why did you leave us, Owen? Why did you die?"

It is not my purpose to recall needlessly the unhappy memories of an age gone by. But I think that the history of the Irish – and indeed of all people, East and West – demonstrates that along with the need to worship God there has been implanted in every man's soul the desire to be free.

The greatest enemy today of man's desire to be free is, of course, the Soviet Union, which holds its captives in a subjugation harsh and unending, maintained by a tyranny more sinister and persuasive than any in the history of the world. The United States and her allies have for more than a decade been attempting to halt this Communist advance. But one of the weaknesses in our common front has been the restraint on freedom sponsored by our allies and accepted by ourselves.

Why in this past decade has not the United States consistently based its conduct of foreign affairs upon the recognition of every man's desire to be free? We were, after all, the victor in our own war for independence. We promulgated the Monroe Doctrine and the "open-door" policy, with their clear warnings to the colonial powers of Europe. We gave self-determination to our own dependencies; and we were for more than a century outspoken in our opposition to colonial exploitation elsewhere. But throughout all this we were still living largely in a splendid isolation, removed from a direct control of world destiny. But World War II rudely shook this isolation – the frontiers of our national security became the frontiers of the world – and we found ourselves obliged to deal with the harsh facts of existence on a global basis.

For the sake of our own security, we have found our destiny to be closely linked with that of the British and the French; the Dutch and the Belgians – nations which still hold under their subjugation large areas of the world upon which they feel their ultimate security depends.

And thus we have been caught up in a dilemma which up to now has been insoluble. We want our Allies to be strong, and yet quite obviously a part of their strength comes from their overseas possessions. And thus our dilemma has become a paradox. We fight to keep the world free from Communist imperialism – but in doing so we hamper our efforts, and bring suspicion upon our motives, by being closely linked with Western imperialism. We have permitted the reputation of the United States as a friend of oppressed people to be hitched to the chariot of the conqueror; because we have believed we could have it both ways.

It is easy for us to believe that the imperialism of the West is infinitely preferable to the totalitarianism of the Soviets – but the sullen hostility of Islam and Asia should make us wonder. We thought it would be obvious to the North African that control by France is better for the North African than control by the Communists. I happen to believe it is – but I do not live in North Africa. When Stalin was alive and personified aggression – in a hurry and on the make – it was possible for natives to see the true meaning of Communist control. But now, in a period when the Communist challenge is more subtle, when they employ the people's passion for freedom by skillfully manipulating native leaders, our position becomes nearly impossible.

I do not wish to oversimplify an endlessly complex problem, nor deny the success we have had in helping free countries remain free. But our attempts to look both ways on the subject of colonialism has caused our standing in the free world to be seriously questioned. The time has come for a more forceful stand.

I urge, therefore, that this nation, acting within appropriate limits of judgment and discretion, inform our allies and the world at large that – after a reasonable period of transition and self-determination – this nation will speak out boldly for freedom for all people – whether they are denied that freedom by an iron curtain of tyranny, or by a paper curtain of colonial ties and constitutional manipulations. We shall no longer abstain in the U. N. from voting on colonial issues – we shall no longer trade our vote on such issues for other supposed gains – we shall no longer seek to prevent the subjugated peoples of the world from being heard and we shall recognize that the day of the colonial is through, and that words of lasting wisdom were printed nearly 160 years ago by the imprisoned editor of the Dublin Press, Arthur O'Connor

"If there be any man so base or so stupid," wrote Arthur O'Connor in his Address to the Irish Nation, "as to imagine that they can usurp or withhold your civil and political rights; that they can convert truth into sedition or patriotism into treason; let them look round them – they will find, that amongst the old and inveterate despotisms in Europe, some have been destroyed, and the rest are on the brink of destruction."

Such a warning is no less true today, as one by one the traditional colonies of Western powers break free. Only a bold and sympathetic stand by the United States during this period of transition will prevent them from falling under the control of a tyranny infinitely more infamous than that from which they are now emerging. And thus the whole struggle of the free world against the Communists will be clarified and strengthened. I emphasize again that I do not fail to appreciate the difficulties of our hard pressed Allies –- but I feel that their present colonial policies only serve to make easier the way of the Communist transgressor.

You may feel that this has little to do with Ireland and the Irish; but we must not forget that freedom is the commodity the Irish have valued most highly and the commodity that Ireland has exported most widely. The "wild geese" – the Irish officers and soldiers who fled Ireland after the Battle of the Boyne – fought for freedom in all parts of the world. Exiled, persecuted, and loyal, they and their descendants fought in their part of the world for their outlawed religion, their denationalized country and their hopes for freedom. Fighting for the French, they broke the ranks of the English at Fontenoy. Fighting for the Spanish, they turned the tide of battle against the Germans at Melaszo. And fighting for the Union Army, they bore the brunt of the slaughter at Fredericksburg.

Thus Irishmen today can sympathize with the aspirations of all people everywhere to be free – and their own long and ultimately successful fight for independence offers encouragement and hope to all who struggle to be free. Let the United States and all free people today speak to captive peoples everywhere with the words of Sir Roger Casement as he addressed the British jury which had sentenced him to hang for high treason in 1914:

"When all your fights," said Sir Roger, "become only an accumulated wrong; when man must beg with bated breath for leave to subsist in their own land, to think their own thoughts, to sign their own songs - then surely it is a braver, a saner and a truer thing to be a rebel in act and in deed. Gentlemen of the Jury: Ireland has outlived the failure of all her hopes – and yet she still hopes. And this faculty – of preserving through centuries of misery the remembrance of lost liberty – this surely is the noblest cause men ever strove for, ever lived for, ever died for. If this be the case for which I stand indicted here today, then I stand in a goodly company and in a right noble succession."

There is our message, Mr. Toastmaster. There is our faith and our task. Let us not foil its fulfillment. Let us hold out our hands to those who struggle for freedom today as Ireland struggled for a thousand years. Let us not leave them to be "sheep without a shepherd, when the snow shuts the sky." Let us show them we have not forgotten the constancy and the faith and the hope – of the Irish.

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 895, "Irish Fellowship Club of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, 17 March 1956." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.