In recognition of the 50th anniversary of U.S. President John F. Kennedy's visit to his ancestral home in Ireland during a state visit, a ceremony was held at the president's gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery June 18 that included a wreath laying and torch lighting. A spark taken from the eternal flame at the JFK gravesite lit a torch that was transported this week to New Ross in County Wexford, Ireland, from where Kennedy family members emigrated in 1848. The flame, transported using specially-designed lamps, will illuminate an Emigrant Flame Memorial in New Ross that will be dedicated June 22. Irish Prime Minister Edna Kenny, the president's daughter Caroline Kennedy and sister, former Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, will be on hand for the Saturday ceremony.
The Irish government's Minister of State, Paul Kehoe, along with representatives from Wexford, travelled from Ireland for the June 18 ANC ceremony, which included a colour guard from the Irish Defence Forces joining one from the Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall based 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard). As the ceremonial units conducted their solemn procession during the wreath laying, the mournful, keening drone of a single bagpipe player accompanied their paces.
"We're honored to have with us the latest member of the Kennedy family to take the path of public service through elective office ... Joseph Kennedy III, newly elected [to the U.S. House of Representatives] to represent the Massachusetts 4th District," said Kevin Conmy, Embassy of Ireland charge' d'affaires, in introducing the congressman.
"Above all else, the story of President Kennedy's trip to Ireland is a story of a young man returning home," said Joseph Kennedy III, son of Congressman Joseph Kennedy II and great-grandson of former U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy. "It's a story of a native son arriving on the doorstep of his humble, proud great-grandparents... It's the story of a thousand welcomes and a million tears. It's an Irish story and an American story."
Kennedy then recited lines from a speech JFK made to the people of Ireland during his 1963 visit. "Fifty years ago Kennedy said, 'Most countries send out oil or rice, steel or gold or some other crop. But Ireland has only one export -- and that is its people.'
"While this country imports raw materials and finished goods to feed our economy, we welcome the stranger to strengthen our spirit," the congressman said of the U.S. "For almost a full generation they were mostly Irish. Now, they come from every corner of the world.
"We light this torch today as a symbol of the bond forged by a young American president who found his way home," he continued. "When we see that flame, it's not only a reminder of the ties between our families and our nations, but also as an emblem of the lamplight that welcomes all."
Kehoe followed Kennedy, noting that the Irish prime minister described Kennedy's 1963 visit as "a watershed in Irish history.
"In 1963, Ireland was still a very young nation, not yet achieving its full potential and still finding its voice internationally," Kehoe said. "When President Kennedy came to visit he brought a message of hope and inspiration. He encouraged Ireland to be proud and confident of itself and its place in the world. He himself, a returning son of Irish immigrants serving in the most important and powerful position in the world, was the very embodiment of that hope and inspiration -- the living proof that Irish people could do anything they set their minds to do.
"Today we light the Kennedy torch and take the light that permanently shines here, back to where the journey began at the key site in New Ross -- a reverse journey that reflects the deepest of family ties."
A quartet of emissaries representing Kennedy's legacy participated in the torch lighting, including: two representatives from the Special Olympics, which was founded by JFK's sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver during the president's administration; one from the Peace Corps, which was formed in the Kennedy era; a member of the Irish Defence Forces; and the chairman of the New Ross Town Council.
"We are delighted to have this opportunity to recall President Kennedy's visit to Ireland in such a special way during this 50th anniversary year," stated Irish Ambassador Michael Collins in a press release. "President Kennedy continues to be remembered with much admiration and affection in Ireland and particularly in [County] Wexford, from where his ancestors immigrated to America in the mid-19th century."
Frankie Byrne, a Rosslyn, Va., resident with Irish heritage, was in the audience for the ceremony. She said she was old enough to remember Kennedy's visit to Ireland. She said she particularly liked Kehoe's reference to Patrick Kennedy, the first member of the clan to come to America in 1848, as a "humble cooper," someone whose profession was to make bound-together wooden-staved vessels like barrels, buckets or casks.
Dave Counts of Vienna, Va., whose daughter Ashley is involved in the Special Olympics, said the event brought back memories of the Kennedy visit to Ireland. "I remember all that," he said. "And I'm sure the people of Ireland still feel connected to the Kennedy clan."
Helmut Hebner and his son Axel, tourists from Germany, found out about the ceremony while visiting the cemetery. "I remember the speech when it came on over the radio in 1963," Helmut said. "My parents turned the radio up a little louder."