Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at Friendly Sons of St. Patrick’s Dinner, Providence, Rhode Island, March 17, 1959

Our final toast tonight is dedicated to "the United States". But responding to this toast is not as simple a task as it may first seem. The toast to the Catholic Church can only refer to one church, its teachings eternal and unchanging – although I have reason to know that its members sometimes feel free to criticize each other for their own interpretations. The toast to "the day we celebrate" is equally clear – there is only one St. Patrick’s Day and only one St. Patrick.

But a toast to "the United States" raises more complicated questions. If by "the United States" we once meant a collection of 48, I am not certain whether tonight we should talk about 49 or 50 states. If this toast is directed toward the people of this country, then the rapid growth in our population makes it a different toast now than it was when we sat down to dinner. If the toast is to our geography, we would have to check the bills put through by various Congressmen that have irrigated deserts, transplanted mountains and caused rivers to run upstream. Or finally, if this toast refers to the Government of the United States, then I must confess my doubt at times as to who is in charge of that Government.

But in my opinion the meaning of the United States is not limited to any government, real estate, or population. Nor does it refer to our material wealth, our natural assets, our flag, our armies in the field or our diplomats abroad. Each of these, at different times and in different places and to different people, may symbolize the United States. But more than that, the United States is an idea and an ideal – a spirit and a tradition – a goal of life and a way of life.

There are those who say that America has a monopoly on these ideals – that they cannot be exported – that other peoples in other lands are less devoted to the traditions of liberty which mean so much to us. Yet the history of Ireland proves otherwise.

For Ireland’s chief export down through the centuries has been neither potatoes nor linen – it has been human freedom. Throughout its history, its exiles and emigrants have fought notably, with sword and pen, for freedom in other parts of the globe.

Particularly noted were the "Wild Geese" – the officers and soldiers forced to flee their native Ireland after the Battle of the Boyne. 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 Melazzo. And fighting for the American Union Army, they bore the brunt of the slaughter at Fredericksburg:

"War-battered dogs are we, [they said]
gnawing a naked bone;
Fighters in every land & clime–
[for] every cause but our own."

All this is now past. Yet the heroic annals of Ireland’s fight for freedom should be recalled today. We are frequently urged to accept as permanent the enslaved status of the so-called satellite countries; and we are being urged today to be more flexible on Berlin, to recognize that it is hopeless to expect an island of freedom to remain free admidst a sea of Communism, once the East Germans surround West Berlin entirely. And, to be sure, the Communists are prepared to use – in their attempts to take over that keystone to the continent of Europe – techniques of starvation as well as persecution, re-education as well as re-armament, curbs on religious meetings as well as curbs on political meetings.

But if anyone thinks such restrictions on freedom can withstand the irresistible force of human liberty, even if backed by superior military and political force, then let him recall the Ireland of 300 years ago, the similar techniques of oppression, the alternating hope and despair of the Irish, and the unquenchable thirst for human liberty that lingered on despite all defeats and disappointments.

I think it is important that we recall that comparison again tonight – not to revive the unhappy memories and national animosities of an age gone by – but to remind us all that along with the eternal need to worship God, there has been implanted in every man’s soul the eternal desire to be free.

Perhaps the chapter of Irish history most sharply brought to mind is the story of the Irish rebellion of 1641, and its hero Owen Roe O’Neill. Lacking arms, lacking experienced military leadership and sorely divided by factional disputes, the insurgents of 1641 at first found their revolt brutally crushed. As they fell back, the English High Command, on February 25, 1642, anticipating the slaughter of Budapest by more than 300 years, gave the following order to its generals in Ireland: "Wound, kill, slay and destroy, by all the ways and means you may, all rebels and adherents and relievers; and burn, spoil, waste, consume and demolish all places, towns and houses, where the said rebels are, or have been, relieved and harboured, and all hay and corn there; and kill and destroy all the mean inhabitants therein who are able to bear arms."

Overwhelmed with despair, outnumbered and outclassed, the Irish revolutionaries – led by a dedicated but untrained lawyer names Phelim O’Neill – were prepared to surrender all that remained. Then, suddenly from the Boyne to the sea, from county to county, from mouth to mouth, the joyous word was passed; "Owen Roe has come!" Their leader in exile had returned. Owen Roe O’Neill, nephew of the old Earl of Tyrone, was sailing in from the continent to which his uncle had fled 35 years earlier.

"Glad news, glad news for aching hearts comes from the northern shore!
Ho! Phelim, rouse your sorrowing soul, and raise your head once more!
Magennis and Maguire, come from out your 'leagured tower,
And spit upon their Saxon laws – defy their Saxon power!
For eyes are fired that erst shone meek, and tongues loosed that were dumb –
Up Gaels! Up Gaels! Revenge! Revenge! Owen Roe, Owen Roe is come!"

On July 6, 1642, having successfully evaded the British Fleet, Owen Roe O’Neill stepped ashore in the north of Donegal. Already famous in his own right for his brilliant battle for Spain at Arras, the greatest Irish general of his time was home at last – and he rallied round him a once ragged army and a once despondent citizenry. Owen Row "The Liberator," he was called – "the worthiest warrior of them all"; and ignoring the jealousies and the petty divisions that hampered his efforts, he went steadily forward to his appointed task of building an army and driving the enemy from his native shores.

Finally, in June of 1646, with a greatly outnumbered army and with no artillery whatsoever, he fought and won his greatest battle, the famous victory of Benburb. Launching a whirlwind attack with the cry of "Sancta Maria!," he wiped out the enemy’s army in one brief hour, captured enough equipment to outfit his entire force, and left 3300 of the enemy dead on the battlefield. Fatalities in his own ranks numbered exactly 70.

Here is a story that demonstrates – as perhaps nothing else – that superiority in numbers and arms can be overcome by those with a superior ideal. William Jennings Bryan put it another way at a political convention many years ago; "The humblest citizen of all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of Error."

But the story of Owen Roe O’Neill also demonstrates the importance of strong leadership in an hour of crisis – and strong unity at a time of confusion. For following the great victory at Benburb in 1646, rival factions sued for an unworthy peace; dissident parties and jealous leaders fought among themselves and against Owen Roe; and thus a divided Irish nation was dismally unprepared for the invasion of Oliver Cromwell. And when at last they instinctively turned again to their own great liberator whom they had shamed and abused, Owen Roe fell ill before he could rejoin his army – and died – the victim, it was said, of a poisoned nail placed in his shoe by an agent of Cromwell.

The entire Irish nation was overwhelmed with grief:

"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?"

So ended the story of the Irish rising of 1641. O’Neill’s wife fled into exile, his son was captured in battle and beheaded; and, their armies overwhelmed, the Irish people were brutally slaughtered and enslaved by a ruthless and relentless Cromwell. The entire population of Ireland within a few years after O’Neill’s death had declined by more than 50% -- the result of human slaughter, mass deportation and a great exodus of exiles and emigrants:

"They’re going, going, going, and we cannot bid them stay,
For their fields are now the stranger's, where the stranger's cattle stray.
But no foreign skies hold beauty like the rainy skies they knew;
Nor any night-wind cool the brow as did the foggy dew … "

To those hapless exiles from the Emerald Isle, as to those fleeing Eastern Germany today, and those struggling against overwhelming odds in other parts of the world, the prospects for the liberation of their homeland seemed very remote indeed. And yet, as Sir Roger Casement told the British jury that sentenced him to hang for high treason in 1914: "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.

The cause that begets this indomitable persistency, 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."

May this spirit, and this story of 1641, and all the stories of the Irish martyrdom like it, be recalled in this year of 1959, in the minds of the oppressors, in the hearts of the oppressed and in our nation’s capital.

And let us here resolve that the nation we salute tonight – the United States we so rightly toast – will forever hold out its hands to those who struggle for freedom today, as Ireland struggled for a thousand years. Let us demonstrate in Berlin and all over the world the strength, the unity, and above all the leadership which the struggle for freedom requires – if we are not to leave these oppressed peoples like "sheep without a shepherd when the snow shuts out the sky." Let us recognize that there may be satellite governments, but there are never satellite peoples – that nations maybe colonized, but never men – and that whether a man be East German or West German, Chinese or Irish, Catholic or Moslem, white or black, there forever burns within his breast the unquenchable desire to be free.

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 902, "Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick's dinner, Providence, Rhode Island, 17 March 1959." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.