I was fifteen years of age when President Kennedy visited Ireland in 1963.
To understand the impact of President Kennedy, one has to understand that the Ireland of 1960 was a very different place, even to the Ireland of 1970.
In 1960, the pall of nineteenth century disappointment still hung over the country.
There was still a strong sense, at that time, that we might not be able to make it as a successful nation, at least in an economic sense.
Having gained our independence in 1921, we had failed to achieve the economic potential that many assumed independence would automatically bring, just because the British had been removed.
This economic underachievement was due to the physical damage done by warfare between 1916 and 1923, to protectionist economic and social policies between 1932 and 1956, and to the difficulties any small island economy faced, in the era before cheap air travel, containerisation, and information technology.
Other European countries had simply overtaken us.
Then Irish politicians, like Gerard Sweetman and Sean Lemass, had already begun to change tack, well before the Kennedy election. Protectionism was dropped, foreign investment and exports were encouraged, island status became less of a handicap, and the economy stated to grow.
And then, as if to confirm and symbolise the more hopeful and outward looking atmosphere, one of “our own”, a man of Irish Catholic heritage became President of the United States. Not only that, he came in person to visit our country.
The fact that a person of an Irish Catholic background could be elected President of the United States, and could present such a modern and suave image to the world, made everyone of the same religious and national background feel that they too should reassess their own potential, that they too could achieve great things, and that the stereotypes, to which we were subject for so long, need no longer constrain us.
The effect of all this was, of course, magnified by television. President Kennedy’s elegance, oratory and charm would have not have had a fraction of the impact it had, if it had happened in 1953, before television was widespread. He was probably the most televisual President ever, and he was able to use the medium to beam hope and confidence into every Irish home.