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John F. Kennedy's First St. Patrick's Day in the White House, March 17, 1961

(Photo Courtesy of JFK Library) 

THE IRISH came bearing gifts on March 17, 1961, John F. Kennedy's first St. Patrick's Day in the White House. It's a practice that has spanned fifty years to this day.

Online digital archives at John F. Kennedy Presidential Library which have been recently made available to the public contain a trove of information on President Kennedy's term at the White House, including his interactions with the Irish.

The archives reveal that at 10 a.m. on Friday, March 17, 1961, the president's first in the White House, Ireland's ambassador, Thomas J. Kiernan, made his nation's annual pilgrimage to the Oval Office to present the ceremonial bowl of shamrock to the President. That tradition had started a few years earlier in 1958 when the inauguration of Aer Lingus transatlantic jet flights guaranteed fresh shamrock sprigs from Ireland on the big day.

Joining President Kennedy in the Oval Office was Congressman John E. Fogarty of Rhode Island, Kennedy's long-time friend and colleague. In 1951, Congressman Kennedy had cosigned a bill with Fogarty calling for Irish unification, and had supported a similar resolution when Kennedy became a senator.

The president greeted Ambassador Kiernan and, grinning, accepted the bowl of shamrock presented to him. Kiernan was not finished however. He then produced a beautiful hand-printed scroll displaying the Kennedy coat of arms, signed by the chief herald of Ireland, Gerard Slevin.

The American Heraldry Society referred to the gift as "a splendid, hand-illuminated sheet of vellum.

"Fully conscious of the historic nature of the event," the society wrote, the Irish "spared no effort to ensure that the presentation was of the highest possible quality. Not only were the letters patent beautifully lettered and painted, complete with the pendant seal of the chief herald, but the document was presented in a specially made box lined with blue Irish poplin, on which was embroidered in gold thread the harp of Brian Boru, the emblem of the national arms of Ireland."

After presenting the coat of arms, Kiernan, who was married to Irish traditional singer Delia Murphy, then proceeded to recite for the president, in Irish, a 15th century poem about an Irishman named O'Cinneidigh," according to Boston Globe reporter Robert Healy in a light-hearted article.

The president tried the English version but "couldn't quite get his tongue around the Gaelic names,” Healy reported.

Kennedy, who was fully immersed in his first 100 days in office, was so busy he forgot about March 17th altogether, wrote Healy.

"Apparently Mr. Kennedy didn't remember it was St. Patrick's Day, for before the Irish Ambassador arrived at the White House the staff had to dig up a green tie for the president.

"John "Muggsie” O’Leary of Somerville, who drove the president when he was a senator and is now a member of the White House Secret Service, produced a soft green tie for the president," Healy wrote.

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For access to the digital archives, go to jfklibrary.org.

For year round information on Boston Irish culture, history and heritage, visit IrishBoston.org and IrishHeritageTrail.com.

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