AS images of President Joe Biden flashed on our screens last week, I checked out some old black-and-white footage of John F Kennedy’s address to the Oireachtas in 1963.
Kennedy spent most of the first five minutes talking about the Irish Brigade and how gallantly they had fought and died in the American Civil War. His Oireachtas audience clapped in rapture when he said things like “Today a free Ireland will not be satisfied with anything less than liberty” and “Ireland was the first of the small nations in the twentieth century to win its struggle for independence.” What’s more, he said, “Ireland is not neutral between liberty and tyranny – and never will be!” The fuzzy men in grey suits loved it.
Last week, sixty years later, Joe Biden addressed the Oireachtas. As the clapping died down, he raised both arms and eyes to the ceiling: “Well, Mom, you said it would happen!”
From there, the address went downhill. His listeners looked star-struck at first, but seemed to grow a little weary of Biden-worship as he went on. At one point Leo Varadkar realised the camera was doing a close-up on him and gave a nod of assent to whatever the US President was saying.
Joey (his mom’s pet name for him) covered a lot of ground, but found time to repair an earlier gaffe. He’d spoken of how the Ireland rugby team had thrashed "the Black and Tans". This time he boasted of having the rugby ball in his office that was used by the Irish team to beat the "All Blacks". Applause. Practice makes perfect.
He quoted his mother: “Joey, courage is the greatest virtue of all. Without courage you can’t love with abandon."
While he was gung-ho anti-Russia (“Putin got it wrong over Ukraine – we are determined to defend the values that make us strong”), a sentence or two later he warned that “Political violence must never again be allowed to take hold in this island."
He raised his voice and rapped the lectern when he spoke of "Possibilities! I really mean this! To dream together, to build together!”
Let’s cut the guff: His speech was long and tedious and repetitive, as was Kennedy’s speech in 1963. Honeyed words, yes, but I felt a twinge when JFK spoke of Ireland as having achieved its independence, and listening to Biden sixty years say something very similar, the twinge came back.
It seems that partition, in 1963 and 2023, is the word that dare not speak its name.