Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the St. Patrick’s Day Dinner, New York, NY, March 17, 1954

There is an old Irish saying that "On St. Patrick’s Day in the spring there is a nest in every wood, a trout in every pool, and a heifer calf in every cow-paddock in Ireland." For legend has it that for more than 1400 years no rain has fallen upon St. Patrick’s Day throughout the length and breadth of green Erin, no matter what may happen in the less favored realms of the earth outside the pale of the Insula Sanctorum which was eternally blessed by St. Patrick. We are told that it was St. Patrick’s wish that the weather should always be bright and fair on his special day, the 17th of March, to allow the attendance of the faithful at the services of the church; and that this request was one of seven requests made to the Angel of the Lord which were granted St. Patrick in order to bring happiness and hope to the Irish. Also among these requests was the petition that every Thursday and every Saturday twelve souls of the Irish people should be freed from the pains of hell; and also that no outlander should ever rule 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? Neither have I received any report to confirm my belief that twelve Irish souls will be freed from the nether regions tomorrow and on Saturday. But I need no report to tell me that today no outlander rules over Eire; and the Irish people are celebrating this day in peace and in liberty.

But neither St. Patrick’s Day nor any other day of the year is a time of rejoicing for 800 million people in the world today – 800 million people who live their lives in despair and deprivation behind the Iron Curtain. For them, totalitarian power has been substituted for individual rights and human decency. Unalterable adherence to a pagan party line has replaced free expression of opinion. And subversion, intimidation, and violence have become the law of their land instead of peaceful and democratic methods. From the 19 million people of East Germany to the 10 million persons in Communist controlled Viet Minh, there is no rejoicing in the name of religion and independence on this St. Patrick’s night.

We know that in those Communist-dominated nations the spirit of freedom is not forever dead, and that hope springs eternal in the hearts of those who look and work toward the day when the heel of the oppressor will be removed from their backs. And yet, it is difficult to keep alive such hopes and such endeavors. Without arms, without organizations, without a press, without fair trials, and without any of the basic political and individual rights you and I take for granted, they face the foreseeable future denied even the consolation of free worship to rekindle their shattered faith. The torture of Cardinal Mindszenty, the incarceration of Cardinal Wyszynski and Archbishop Stepinac, and the oppression of Catholics, Protestants and Jews throughout the area dominated by Communism is designed to destroy the God-given faith of an enslaved people. But the riots in East Germany, and the discontent evidenced throughout the Iron Curtain area, demonstrate to the free world that their devotion to political and religious freedom cannot be easily crushed.

There is no magic formula for rolling back the Iron Curtain, no simple solution in terms of "liberation," "psychological warfare," or a "new look initiative" in foreign policy. But I would respectfully recommend that our Voice of America and other weapons in the battle for men’s minds carry to these discouraged and downtrodden people a message familiar to you and me – the centuries-old faith of the Irish.

The other night I was reading some of the famous trials of Irishmen whose crime was to conspire for Irish independence. It is a fascinating history. Men and women from all stations in life, with varying degrees of education and from totally different backgrounds were united in a common cause; and they refused to permit that cause to die, no matter what the odds. That spirit must find its counterpart today.

Compare if you will, the ruthless and overwhelming tyranny of the Soviets today with that of the year 1796, when one William Orr, a farmer of Farranshane in the County Antrim, was indicted for having administered the oath of the United Irishmen, a secret oath which the Crown charged to be that of a society formed for seditious purposes and thus unlawful under the Insurrection Act. Throughout the whole of this trial, not unlike the modern Communist purge trials, not only the outside hall but the court itself was crowded with armed soldiers, who were appointed to act as bailiffs with fixed bayonets. When Orr was convicted by what was later deemed to be a drunken and perjured jury, controlled by the Crown, the printing office of the Northern Star, the newspaper which had printed Orr’s last remarks about the unfairness of his trial, was besieged by the soldiers of the King, who assaulted the employees and completely demolished the building. A few days later, the Dublin Press, published by one Peter Finnerty, contained an open letter to His Excellency, the Lord Lieutenant, from one who signed the name of Marcus. This letter attacked the verdict in the Orr case, and its reliance upon informers, perjurers and intoxicants. "But my Lord," said Marcus in his letter which should be reread in the cellars of East Berlin:

"My Lord, it will not do; though your guards and your soldiers and your thousands and your tens of thousands should conduct innocence to death – it will not do. A voice has cried in the wilderness; and let the deserted streets of Carrickfergus proclaim to all the world that good men will not be intimidated and that they will yet be more numerous than your soldiers."

Peter Finnerty, the publisher of the Press, was promptly indicted for publishing a false and scandalous libel upon the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland which it was said had attempted to bring his Government into disrepute and to alienate the affections of the people. Of course, the Government was already in some small disrepute among the Irish, and their affections were already alienated, but to have hinted at this truth would have been both irrelevant and irreverent. During his confinement, Finnerty was subjected to every conceivable form of blandishment, bribe and punishment – not unlike the brainwashing of today – to induce him to reveal the identity of Marcus. But he refused to inform. He was eloquently defended by the immortal Curran, who reminded the jury that "the liberty of the press and the liberty of the people sink and rise together… The tyrant prepares for the attack upon the people by destroying liberty of the press, by taking away that shield of wisdom in whose pure and polished convex he beholds his own image and is turned to stone." But Curran’s plea for the indispensable courage of the printer was in vain; and Peter Finnerty was heavily fined, imprisoned, and forced to stand in the pillory opposite the Session House in Green Street. When the crowd in attendance at the pillory applauded Finnerty’s statement that he could "suffer anything provided it promotes the liberty of my country," it was set upon by armed guards much as the demonstrators for freedom in East Berlin were attacked.

Immediately thereafter Arthur O’Connor became the editor of the Press, but he too was imprisoned and the paper suppressed. Upon his release from the Tower, O’Connor, undaunted and undismayed, delivered his "Address to the Irish Nation"; and those words of 150 years ago should be remembered and brought home to those behind the Iron Curtain today – indeed they should be pondered by their Soviet masters as well. For Arthur O’Connor said on that occasion:

"Regardless of whether I am doomed to fall by the lingering torture of a solitary dungeon, or the blow of the assassin; if the Freedom of the Press is to be destroyed, I shall esteem it a proud destiny to be buried under its ruins. But if there be any men so base or so stupid 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 – if they imagine that this is a period favorable for abridging the freedom of mankind, or establishing despotic power on the ruins of Liberty, let them look round them, and 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."

That is but a page of the long story, of course, only one series of trials, one series of tyrannies, in the centuries of struggle for Irish independence. The imprisonment and death of their leaders and the destruction of their homes, forums and newspapers did not extinguish the spark of hope in the Irish; and they sang in the song of the Irish Republicans: "For we are Irishmen, Irishmen ever, undaunted we’ll fight to the end; together we’ll conquer, or sink undisgraced to the grave."

There is a message for our Voice of America; the message of another people whose hope survived generations of terror and despotism. Let us communicate to the discouraged workers and farmers and shopkeepers behind the Iron Curtain the unquenchable spirit of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, of Arthur O’Connor, of Oliver Bond, of Padraic Pearse, and of Robert Emmett; of Michael O’Brien and Richard Burke and Timothy Featherstone, of Sir Roger Casement and James Richards and all the other names enshrined upon the roll call of honor, who faced death in order that the spirit of liberty might not also die in their land.

I know you must frequently share my frustration over how little we are able to offer the peoples suffering under the iron hand of the Soviets. But if, while we strive for their eventual delivery, we can offer hope to the troubled in mind, and courage to the brave in spirit, then we shall have helped keep alive the faith that will one day be free.

Here is a mission for Irishmen of all lands and all generations. Here is a challenge to the United States, whom we salute tonight as the torch bearer of liberty. Let us inscribe on the inner wall of the Iron Curtain for all to read, oppressor and oppressed, the words of the Irish martyrs. Let those partisans of freedom behind the Iron Curtain, who see little hope for their generation and little more for the next, hear these words spoken by Sir Roger Casement to the jury which had convicted him of high treason for his part in the organization of the Irish in 1914: "If it be treason," said Sir Roger,

"to fight against such an unnatural fate as this, then I am proud to be a rebel, and shall cling to my ‘rebellion’ with the last drop of my blood. If there be no right of rebellion against a state of things that no savage tribe would endure without resistance, then I am sure that it is better for men to fight and die without right than to live in such a state of right as this. Where all your rights become only an accumulated wrong; where men must beg with bated breath for leave to subsist in their own land, to think their own thoughts, to sing their own songs, to garner the fruits of their own labors – and even while they beg, to see these things inexorably withdrawn from them – then surely it is a braver, a saner, and a truer thing to be a rebel in act and deed against such circumstances as these than tamely to accept it as the natural lot of men."

"Gentlemen of the jury: Ireland has outlived the failure of all her hopes – and yet she still hopes. Ireland has seen her sons – aye, and her daughters too – suffer from generation to generation always for the same cause, meeting always the same fate, and always at the hands of the same power; and yet always a fresh generation has passed on to withstand the same oppression. For if English authority be omnipotent – a power, as Mr. Gladstone phrased it, that reaches to the very ends of the earth – Irish hope exceeds the dimensions of that power, excels its authority, and renews with each generation the claims of the last. The cause that begets this indomitable persistency, the faculty of preserving through the 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 I stand here today indicted for, and convicted of sustaining, then I stand in a goodly company and a right noble succession."

There is our message, Mr. Chairman; there is our faith and our task. Let us not fail its fulfillment.

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 894, "Saint Patrick's Day, New York, 17 March 1954." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.