DUBLIN (Reuters) - Relatives of President John F. Kennedy lit a flame in Ireland on Saturday to mark the anniversary of his 1963 visit to the country, a landmark in its post-independence history.
Kennedy’s visit, just five months before his assassination, was the first by a serving U.S. president and cemented the strong links between the nations forged by waves of emigration.
One of the men to make the long journey over the Atlantic was the president’s own great-grandfather Patrick who left New Ross in southeast Ireland for the United States in 1848 during the potato famine.
On Saturday, Irish premier Enda Kenny joined thousands in the county Wexford town to mark the anniversary with the president’s sister Jean Kennedy Smith and daughter Caroline Kennedy.
“President Kennedy’s 1963 visit to Ireland remains one of the iconic moments of 20th century Ireland,” Kenny said. “The powerful symbolism, memorable speeches and the warmth of the interaction between this Irish American President and the Irish public had an impact on both.”
Using a torch lit from the eternal flame at Kennedy’s grave at Arlington cemetery, Kenny, Jean Kennedy Smith and Caroline Kennedy together lit an “emigrant flame” in New Ross to commemorate the millions of Irish who fled poverty and hard lives at home.
The 1963 visit brought a touch of glamour to Ireland, then still a poor country at the margins of Europe that was struggling to escape from the shadow of larger neighbor Britain, from which it won independence in 1921.
Witnesses still remember Kennedy’s youthfulness and charisma and the way he joined in the singing of a ballad about a 1798 revolt against the British.
It was part of a wider tour of Europe that included Kennedy’s historic call for liberty in his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech that encouraged frightened citizens of the western side of the city after the Berlin Wall was erected.
It has some parallels with Barack Obama’s trip to Europe this week. The current president has Irish ancestors and while he attended a G8 summit in Northern Ireland, his wife and daughters attracted crowds of onlookers during a visit to Dublin and lunch with U2 singer Bono.
The Irish vote helped to sweep Kennedy to power in 1960 and Obama learned to play that card when he was an Illinois senator seeking votes on the streets of Chicago, where he regularly participated in the St Patrick’s Day parade.
“There was no visit that my father made as president that meant more to him that his visit to Ireland,” Caroline Kennedy said outside the small cottage where her great-great-grandfather was born and where her father sipped tea with relatives half a century ago.
“Growing up in our family, nothing was a greater source of pride than our Irish heritage.”
Reporting by Sam Cage; Editing by Padraic Halpin and Andrew Heavens