On June 28, 1963, the then-President of the United States of America, the late great John Fitzgerald Kennedy, addressed a joint session of the Oireachtas Eireann, the national parliament of Ireland, in Dublin. He spoke not only as the world’s most powerful political leader of his era, but as the proud descendant of an impoverished Irish emigrant family.
In 1848 John Kennedy’s great grandfather Patrick had escaped the Great Famine in Ireland and sailed with his young wife to America, only to die a few years later of cholera in the slums of East Boston. But Patrick Kennedy left behind in his adopted homeland the foundations of a powerhouse family dynasty that would dominate American politics, public service and business throughout the 20th century. In every year between 1947 and 2011 there was at least one Kennedy in federal Office; three would become US senators and one, JFK, would be President of the United States.
When he spoke to the Irish parliament in 1963, more than a half-century before climate change, globalisation and the Arab Spring, the American president powerfully and provocatively evoked notions of an emerging global community and the need for universal tolerance and cooperation, issues that have profound relevance in today’s post-Brexit, Trumped-up world of fractured borders and displaced peoples. Kennedy spoke of a rapidly shrinking world and “our indivisibility as children of God,” urging his audience that common bonds of humanity disregarding politics, race and religion, were what ultimately must bind us together as inhabitants of the planet. “No nation, large or small, can be indifferent to the fate of others, near or far,” the president prophetically declared. “Modern economics, weaponry and communications have made us all realise more than ever that we are one human family, and this one planet is our home.
In eloquently making his point John Kennedy quoted the simple verse of the 19th century Irish poet and journalist John Boyle O’Reilly, who wrote, almost a century earlier,
“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.”
O’Reilly was a good choice to underscore the president’s message; when he wrote those tender words the poet was speaking from bitter experience. In a short life of 46 years John Boyle O’Reilly was a reviled revolutionary, a convict, and a refugee, then later one of the most respected newsmen in the US, a celebrated columnist and civil rights advocate whose appeal transcended race, religion and nationality.
As a 21-year-old Irish patriot O’Reilly was arrested in the Fenian Uprising of 1867, sentenced to life imprisonment, and transported by convict ship to Australia, before he escaped and fled by arduous sea-journey to America. He settled in Boston, where he became a leading journalist with the newspaper, The Pilot. In America he rejected Fenian militancy and, for the next twenty years, through his poetry and prose, lecture tours, and work on The Pilot, devoted his life to a variety of causes from Irish independence to civil rights for black Americans, support for native-Americans and opposition to anti-Semitism. Following his death in 1890 the city of Boston raised a bronze statue in his honor on the Fenway.
The convicted refugee and fugitive John Boyle O’Reilly became a good citizen, one who ultimately made a valuable and lasting contribution to his adopted homeland, just as did the impoverished, displaced immigrant Patrick Kennedy. His great grandson, the man who would be president, was right to remind us, then as now, that we are each of us our brother’s keeper, fellow citizens of an increasingly small, small world.
This article first appeared in the Gold Coast Magazine, April/May 2017.
Novelist and Filmmaker