March 17, 1956: Senator John F. Kennedy addresses the Irish Fellowship Club of Chicago

I am glad to be in Chicago tonight, not only because my sister and her husband live here, but because I feel strongly the ties of a common kinship. All of us of Irish descent are bound together by the ties that come from a common experience, experience which may exist only in memories and in legend, but which is real enough to those who possess it. And thus whether we live in Cork or Boston, Chicago or Sydney, we are all members of a great family which is linked together by that strongest of chains – a common past. It is strange to think that the wellspring from which this fraternal empire has sprung is a small island in the far Atlantic with a population one-third the size of that of this prairie state. But this is the source, and it is to this green and misty island that we turn tonight and to its patron saint, Saint Patrick.

It is also fitting that we remember at this time three requests granted St. Patrick by the Angel of the Lord, in order to bring happiness and hope to the Irish: first, that the weather should always be fair on his special day to allow the faithful to attend the services of the church; secondly, that every Thursday and every Saturday twelve souls of the Irish people should be freed from the pains of Hell; and third, that no outlander should ever rule over Ireland.

I have not heard a weather report from the Emerald Isle tonight, but I am certain that no rain fell – officially. Who paysJFK Ireland any heed to a little Irish mist? And I have no doubt that twelve Irishmen have been freed from the nether regions this very Saturday. In fact, the toastmaster tells me he thinks he saw several of them here tonight – Governor Stevenson, I understand, was trying last week to get several dozen released in time for the New Hampshire primary. But certainly we need no report to tell us that tonight no outlander rules over Eire; and the Irish people are celebrating this day in peace and in liberty.

But it is not a bitter and tragic irony that the Irish should now enjoy their freedom at a time when personal liberty and national independence have become the most critical issues of our time …
I do not maintain that the Irish were the only race to display extraordinary devotion to liberty, or the only people to struggle unceasingly for their national independence. History proves otherwise. But the special contribution of the Irish, I believe – the emerald thread that runs throughout the tapestry of their past – has been the constancy, the endurance, the faith that they displayed through endless centuries of foreign oppression – centuries in which even the most rudimentary religious and civil rights were denied to them…

Listen, if you will, to the wild melancholy of the Irish after the murder by Cromwell’s agents of their beloved Chieftain, Owen Roe O’Neill:

“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?”

It is not my purpose to recall needlessly the unhappy memories of an age gone by. But I think that the history of the Irish – and indeed of all people, East and West – demonstrates that along with the need to worship God there has been implanted in every man’s soul the desire to be free…

Thus Irishmen today can sympathize with the aspirations of all people everywhere to be free – and their own long and ultimately successful fight for independence offers encouragement and hope to all who struggle to be free. Let the United States and all free people today speak to captive peoples everywhere with the words of Sir Roger Casement as he addressed the British jury which had sentenced him to hang for high treason in 1914:

“When all your fights,” said Sir Roger, “become only an accumulated wrong; when man must beg with bated breath for leave to subsist in their own land, to think their own thoughts, to sign their own songs – then surely it is a braver, a saner and a truer thing to be a rebel in act and in deed. Gentlemen of the Jury: Ireland has outlived the failure of all her hopes – and yet she still hopes. And this faculty – of 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. If this be the case for which I stand indicted here today, then I stand in a goodly company and in a right noble succession.”

There is our message, Mr. Toastmaster. There is our faith and our task. Let us not foil its fulfillment. Let us hold out our hands to those who struggle for freedom today as Ireland struggled for a thousand years. Let us not leave them to be “sheep without a shepherd, when the snow shuts the sky.” Let us show them we have not forgotten the constancy and the faith and the hope – of the Irish.

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