Volume XII: 1961–1965

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 6 (November/December 2020), Reviews, Volume 28

Royal Irish Academy
ISBN 9781911479253

Reviewed by Deaglán de Bréadún

It was an exciting time in Irish politics, especially on the international stage. The latest volume of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy (DIFP) is the twelfth in the series and covers the period from 11 October 1961 to 21 April 1965. This was the term of office of the tenth government of Ireland, a minority Fianna Fáil administration headed by Taoiseach Seán Lemass, with Frank Aiken as minister for external affairs (since changed to foreign affairs.)

The book provides remarkable detail on a wide range of topics. One of them is President John F. Kennedy’s visit to this country in 1963. The saga begins with a letter dated 30 November 1961 from the secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Con Cremin, to Minister Aiken, who was attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Cremin reports on a recent conversation with T.J. O’Driscoll, director-general of the national tourism authority Bord Fáilte (now Fáilte Ireland), who described an approach from the US ambassador to Ireland, Grant Stockdale. Cremin writes: ‘According to Mr O’Driscoll, Mr Stockdale produced to him a letter from the US President to the effect that he would like to come to Ireland if there were “a substantial event” which would justify his doing so’.

In March 1962, Ireland’s ambassador to the US, Thomas J. Kiernan, reported to Cremin on how, during a White House visit, Dublin’s lord mayor, Robert Briscoe, asked Kennedy when he intended coming to Ireland. The ambassador writes:

‘The President’s reaction was spontaneous—that he wanted to visit Ireland and was waiting until a suitable occasion arose. He then asked me to try to find a special occasion to justify a visit, explaining that with so much urgent business to transact in the United States it would look badly if he were to absent himself for a visit to Ireland without some special reason.’

He wanted a proper official visit and one that would not be confined to Dublin.

The lord mayor updated Kennedy on Ireland’s efforts to join the European Economic Community (now the European Union) and the president was ‘keenly interested’ when Kiernan added that, if both parts of the island were in the EEC, it would ‘go a long way towards eroding partition’ by, for example, removing the customs barrier at the border. ‘He said that that would be a wonderful way of ending partition as it would not involve futile attempts at getting a formal agreement with Northern Ireland or the British which seemed to be impossible at this stage.’

On 19 March 1963, Kiernan sent a ‘personal and secret’ report to the new secretary of the department, Hugh McCann, which was also seen by Aiken, describing his St Patrick’s Day visit to the White House to present the traditional shamrock. For logistical reasons it took place on 15 March, and the ambassador made sure that there would be no members of Congress in attendance, as this had previously put ‘a damper on the conversation’. The US chief of protocol, Angier Biddle Duke, was also in the room, but ‘the President stood up from his rocking-chair and took me to the veranda outside’. Kiernan had no problem with Biddle Duke’s presence but Kennedy apparently wanted to have a private discussion of his desire to visit Ireland, flying from Rome at the end of a similar trip to Italy in June (in the event, he visited Ireland before going on to Italy). Responding very positively, Kiernan asked whether he wished to extend the itinerary beyond Dublin and the president mentioned the Kennedy family’s main place of origin: ‘He said that he understood that Wexford was only about two hours’ drive from Dublin and that of course he would like to include Wexford in the visit’.

Kennedy had included a visit to Germany as part of his European tour and at a meeting with Kiernan on the morning of 17 June he said that he was under pressure to cancel the entire trip, e.g. from influential columnist Walter Lippmann, who was described by the president as anti-German. The ambassador handed him a dossier, originally provided by Minister Aiken, quoting various British and Ulster political leaders on the desirability of Irish unity, admittedly under the Crown in most cases.

‘The President looked as if another headache had struck him and asked me was he expected to say anything in public. I repeated that we were not asking for this but only that we hoped for his continued goodwill towards a solution of the reunification of the country. … He said he would study the dossier; and was getting up to conclude the interview … He then said, rather earnestly, “Is it understood that I am not expected to refer publicly to partition?” I assured him, to his relief I think, that this was so.’

Kennedy arrived in Dublin on 26 June 1963 and at 9.30 next morning met the taoiseach at the US embassy. In a memorandum later, Lemass said that they discussed Ireland’s ambition to join the EEC, with the taoiseach setting out the main reasons.

‘The President enquired if any progress is being made on Partition. I explained that, while there is some evidence of a modification of old attitudes, the position is much as it was. I said that I believed that this is a question which, in the ultimate, must be settled in Ireland, that any form of international pressure would not alter the basic situation, and that what we wanted from the British Government was an indication that they would welcome such agreement in Ireland and that there was no British interest in preventing it … The President suggested that the attitude of a Labour Government might be more helpful, and I said that our earlier experience did not support this view.’

Kennedy reviewed the international situation, with the spread of nuclear missiles inevitably a major theme. In a fascinating aside, he said that the giving of such weapons to Germany (whether by the US to the West or by the USSR to the East is not specified) would arouse opposition on emotional, if not very logical, grounds. He added that it was the same for the US in relation to Cuba: there was no difference in the danger to the US between missiles in Cuba and missiles in submarines in the Caribbean Sea, but the emotional reaction of the American people was very definite nevertheless.

Four months later, Lemass and Aiken had a meeting with Kennedy in the White House. Little did they realise that, a month later, the president would be assassinated in Dallas. The Irish relationship with Camelot was coming to an end.

Ireland’s efforts to join the EEC feature prominently in this collection. At the time there were only six members of the Common Market, as it was also known. We had applied for entry in July 1961, at the same time as the United Kingdom began talks about joining. The government’s campaign included a visit to Paris by Lemass on 13 October 1962, when he told the French prime minister, Georges Pompidou, that if the British failed to secure admission it would create problems for Ireland. Later in the day, the taoiseach met President Charles de Gaulle, who ‘gave the impression of being well-disposed towards our application’. Lemass presented him with a copy of the historic Book of Durrow containing a signed dedication in Irish and French. The department’s report says that de Gaulle recalled that one of his grandparents was a McCartan (in fact the link to the County Down family appears to have been much earlier, in the seventeenth century). Nevertheless, when President de Gaulle effectively vetoed Britain’s entry in January 1963, and later in 1967, this also placed Ireland’s application on hold until both countries finally joined in 1973.

One of the major political events in the period covered by this collection is, of course, the historic meeting between the leaders from both sides of the border, Seán Lemass and Captain Terence O’Neill. The collection includes a letter, marked ‘Personal and Confidential’ and dated 5 January 1965, from the secretary of the Department of Finance, T.K. Whitaker, to O’Neill’s private secretary, Jim Malley:

‘The Taoiseach, Mr. Lemass, has asked me to transmit the following message to you for Captain O’Neill, in reply to the latter’s invitation as conveyed by you in person yesterday. Mr. Lemass would be very pleased to go to Belfast for lunch on either Wednesday or Thursday of next week (January 13 or 14), whichever is the more convenient for your Prime Minister.’

The meeting was duly arranged for 14 January at Stormont, and a memorandum from Whitaker, who was present, gives an account of the discussion at O’Neill’s office, which was preceded by lunch at his official residence and lasted about an hour.

‘Inside we sat round the fire in the PM’s office. Captain O’Neill, who had described the meeting at lunch as a historic one (meriting champagne), began by saying how glad he was it had at last come about, and the Taoiseach replied that he had been anxious for a meeting for some years to explore possibilities of practical co-operation in the interests of the whole of Ireland.’

The discussion covered a wide range of day-to-day issues for possible co-operation, including tourism, education, health, trade and other matters. It was agreed that Lemass would draw up a list and send it to Captain O’Neill, who would then indicate a convenient time for a visit to Dublin.

There is more, much more in this fascinating collection, e.g. on the Congo, Cyprus and the UN Security Council. The Documents on Irish Foreign Policy (DIFP) series is a partnership project of the Royal Irish Academy, the National Archives of Ireland and the Department of Foreign Affairs. The documents in volumes I–VIII (1919–48) are also freely available online at

Deaglán de Bréadún is a former Irish Times Northern Editor and author of Power play: the rise of modern Sinn Féin (Merrion Press, 2015).


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