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James T. KeaneApril 14, 2023
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks in a pub in Dundalk, Ireland, on April 12, 2023. (OSV News photo/Kevin Lamarque, Reuters)

What a difference 60 years makes.

U.S. President Joe Biden was met with a warm embrace on his visit to Ireland this week, being called “one of us” by a member of the Irish Parliament and receiving “a rapturous welcome despite heavy wind and rain” upon his arrival to the Republic after concluding a politically tricky trip to Northern Ireland. “Ireland breaks out the bunting for Joe Biden,” The Guardian declared. The eighth visit of a sitting U.S. president to the Emerald Isle, it was also the second by an Irish Catholic president: The first to visit was John F. Kennedy in 1963, whose famous visit set the tone for later political trips, including the cheerful welcomes Ireland offered Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in later decades.

Bunting aside, however, a comparison to President Kennedy’s visit in June 1963 makes it clear how much both the United States and Ireland have changed—socially, politically and religiously.

"Our thoughts are with the quiet Kennedy man who left County Wexford in the 1840’s, little dreaming of the changed country that would welcome back his great-grandson with such pride in 1963."

Before Kennedy was elected president in 1960, some of the most significant moments of his campaign centered on his assurances to U.S. politicians and voters that being Catholic—the first such president—would not impede his ability to govern a majority-Protestant polity with a more or less strong (depending on the issue) separation between church and state. To be Catholic in the United States in 1960 was still in some sense to be foreign to the American experience: newly arrived, hyphenated and with an accent, and with suspect papish sympathies to boot. The name of the game for Kennedy was to downplay his ethnic and religious heritage, to make him the war hero and congressional wunderkind rather than the Irish Catholic son of a bootlegger turned political boss.

In fact, even after his election, many of Kennedy’s advisers didn’t want him to go to Ireland, noted Joseph McAuley in a 2019 article for America: It wouldn’t gain him any more votes in the 1964 election, they thought (what Irish American was going to vote against Camelot?), and it would be seized upon by his Republican enemies as a “pleasure trip” to his ancestral homeland—which, of course, is exactly the charge that Mike Pence just leveled against President Biden. However, they were shocked at the welcome reception the American president received.

“Everybody fawned over the visiting American president, including Irish President Éamon de Valera, who gave the welcoming address at Dublin Airport in both Gaelic and English (railing against the ‘alien invaders’ of Ireland, also known as the British) and stayed by his side through much of the ceremonial events,” McAuley wrote. “Though Kennedy would have hated to admit it, he was very moved emotionally by the trip.”

Upon Kennedy’s departure from Shannon Airport, he promised to “come back in the springtime,” a phrase painful to read in light of his assassination a few short months later.

A glance at America’s archives shows a surprising lack of coverage of the trip (Pope John XXIII had just died, the cardinals were in conclave choosing Pope Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council was in full swing), though editor in chief Thurston N. Davis, S.J., did offer a report from a friend in Dublin, the Irish author Mary Purcell, who made it clear the local importance of the visit:

It’s been cold and wet, but today I see enough blue sky to make wide pants for a sailor, and we’re hopin’ the weather stays up. In all the buses you hear people say, “May the Lord send us a few fine days while he’s here’....I think most of us are just quietly glad and grateful for all God has done for our nation over the past hundred years. Our thoughts are with the quiet Kennedy man who left County Wexford in the 1840’s, little dreaming of the changed country that would welcome back his great-grandson with such pride in 1963, or of the way his family would rise to world pre-eminence.

President Kennedy may have wanted to downplay his ethnic and religious heritage at home, but in Ireland his and his family’s success was a sort of validation of Irish history. “JFK embodied, in all his impossible glamour, an idea of what Ireland then aspired to be,” Fintan O’Toole wrote in his column in The Irish Times this week: “modern, sophisticated and confident.”

Upon Kennedy’s departure from Shannon Airport, McAuley noted, he promised to “come back in the springtime,” a phrase painful to read in light of his assassination a few short months later.

Six decades later, Joe Biden’s visit was also a homecoming of sorts, though the official reason for the visit is the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement (commonly known as the Good Friday Agreement) that brought an end to the Troubles, the 30-year-long civil conflict in Northern Ireland (and, at times, in the Irish Republic and Great Britain). His ancestors hail from County Mayo and County Louth, and he has long played up the importance of the Irish Catholic enclaves in which he was raised in the United States. For Biden, his Irish ancestry is inseparable from his faith—and in fact he visited the Irish shrine at Knock and spoke to a crowd of thousands from the steps of St. Muredach’s Cathedral in Ballina.

The U.S. president is not the first to find himself more “Irish,” in all the stereotypical and maudlin ways the descendants of Irish emigration view the country, than the inhabitants themselves.

But just as American politics has changed in 60 years (let’s be honest, more than half of Irish American Catholics who voted in 2020 chose Trump over Biden), so too has Ireland. The very Catholic state that greeted President John F. Kennedy in 1963 has undergone massive change, perhaps none so visible as the population’s radically altered relationship with Catholicism. The Ireland that President Kennedy found was deeply Catholic, with weekly Mass attendance reported to be as high as 90 percent of the population. Schools from kindergarten through university were Catholic in name and deed; so too were Irish politics and media beholden to a large degree to the dictates of the Catholic hierarchy. No longer.

Every survey in the past decade shows steep declines throughout the Republic of Ireland in religious practice and reception of the sacraments; sex abuse scandals and other revelations of widespread corruption and physical abuse have stolen much of the church’s former authority; a once vocation-rich country now struggles to ordain enough priests to staff its own parishes; and while traditional religion has a hold on the Irish imagination to a degree still noticeable to an American, many young Irish are simply de-Christianized, not so much opposed to the church as dismissive of it.

So too has the traditional alliance between Catholicism and the government been sundered—suddenly gay marriage and abortion are legal in a nation that only legalized divorce in 1995. Ireland has largely abandoned its historical fusion between church and state, a notion that is once again rearing its head in some corners of American Catholicism under the rubric of “integralism,” for a different political and cultural future.

Fintan O’Toole lays the blame almost entirely on the Irish church (surprise plot twist!) for this dramatic split, pointing to the overweening control and abusive policies of so many Catholic institutions over Irish life in the past. What Joe Biden represents, O’Toole writes, is no longer what the Irish want:

Biden now embodies an idea of what Ireland used to be—a place in which “Irish” and “Catholic” was a match made in heaven (and from which there could be no divorce). It says a lot that a US president can seem to most Irish people like a kind of throwback. Not, in Biden’s case, an unpleasant or unwelcome one—but a reminder, nonetheless, of how our own names for who we are have had to change.

The U.S. president is not the first Irish American to set foot on the auld sod and awkwardly find himself more “Irish,” in all the stereotypical and maudlin ways the descendants of Irish emigration view the country, than the inhabitants themselves; the overly sentimental Yank is a trope of Irish culture at this point. Nor do the Irish seem to mind his dewy-eyed and lyrical paeans to the country’s culture and history (even if he confuses the All Blacks with the Black and Tans), which seem sincere. “Most Irish people,” wrote Kevin Hargaden in America, “seem positively disposed to Mr. Biden himself and grateful for the cause of his visit.”

But there is a sense nevertheless that Joe Biden is not visiting his ancestors, but that instead the Irish are hosting a visit from theirs.

Read next: Recap: Joe Biden goes to Ireland for serious diplomacy—and a family reunion

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