Lyndon B. Johnson photo

Remarks in New York City at a Dinner of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick

March 17, 1964

Mr. Moran, Your Eminence, Reverend Clergy, Deputy Mayor Cavanagh, my old and dear friend Jim Farley, my fellow Americans:

I woke up this morning and suddenly realized that the Irish have taken over the Government--and I like it. The Speaker of the House of Representatives is a distinguished Irishman from Boston named John McCormack. The very effective Majority Leader of the United States is an Irishman from Montana, Mike Mansfield. And wherever I turn all day long there are Ken O'Donnell and Larry O'Brien--and Dave Powers and Dick Maguire, and John Bailey and George Reedy and Ralph Dungan, the White House Chapter of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick!

I am convinced that the English claim a prior excellence in the parliamentary system. There is no doubt in my mind that nothing could have been started until the Irish invented politics. So, my good friends, I greet you tonight not only as President of the United States, but as an Irishman by osmosis.

This is supposed to be a nonpartisan gathering, so I won't mention the fact that the Democratic Party is peaceful these days. As a matter of fact, it is so peaceful, the Irish may move to the Republican Party where the feuding is really going on.

Some of you may be old enough to remember the classic story that President Roosevelt used to tell back in 1938. It involved two feuding Irish societies whose principal goal in life was to hold parades and to break up each other's parades.

The prime instrument of the parade in those days was a big bass drum. By sheer good fortune, one of the societies acquired a beautiful new drum, bigger and better than anything that they had ever seen, even in old Ireland.

It came time for the poverty stricken group to hold its parade. Now, Irishmen are generous, and they expect generosity from each other, so the leader of the poor society went to his wealthier brethren and asked for the loan of the great big drum. He was told that he could have it on one condition. "Now listen, Mike, you are welcome to the drum, but it cost us a lot of money and we could never replace it. So we are lending it to you on your personal honor that you take it out of the parade before you reach the corner of O'Connell Street because that is where we will be laying for you."

There must be more O'Connell Streets in New Hampshire than there are in Dublin!

It always makes me a bit wary to be the last speaker on any program. Even the most attentive can get a bit weary. I remember once back in my home country a preacher was vexed because one of his congregation always went to sleep in the midst of the sermon. One Sunday while he was giving the devil fits, sure enough his sleeping worshiper was snoring gently in the front row.

The preacher determined he would fix this character and fix him once and for all. So in a whisper he asked the congregation, "All who want to go to heaven, please rise." As one man, they all got to their feet except the front-row dozer. He kept snoring on. Then the preacher shouted at the top of his voice, "All those who want to be with the devil, please rise." The sleepyhead came awake with a start. He jumped to his feet. He saw the preacher standing tall and angry in the pulpit, and he said, "Well, Preacher, I don't know what it is we are voting on, but it looks like you and me are the only ones for it."

It has been some years since Oscar Wilde observed that the idea that America is a young nation is indeed our oldest tradition. We have built strongly and we have preserved wisely. Most of all, we have protected intact the same constitutional government for almost two centuries. We are one of the youngest nations in the world, with one of the oldest governments in the world.

So it is an uncommon distinction for me to speak to an assembly that was organized before the American Constitution was even written. If I am correctly informed, the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick chose for its first President in 1784 a very fine Presbyterian gentleman. Perhaps that accounts no less for your longevity than it does for your prosperity. But the observance of St. Patrick's Day is as old in America as the Irish themselves and some say that they actually arrived in the sixth century.

Although St. Patrick's Day owes its origin to Irish history, it has always seemed to me one in which America shares in a very direct sense. The Irish came to America because America was the land of hope, and the land of freedom, and the land of opportunity. They came in strange and unfamiliar vessels to leave a land that they loved and to brave a hazardous journey over a vast and stormy ocean, but they had a dream, a dream of freedom and dignity, a dream that a chance for a man to be a man and to maintain his family with pride, and this dream carried them through every hardship and through every disappointment.

Boston might not be Londonderry, and the Hudson might not be the River Shannon, but here a man could hold his head as high as any other, and worship his God as he chose, without ever accounting to a soldier with a bayonet--and there was opportunity, abundant opportunity for a people of gay courage and a people of boundless optimism. And even though very few of my ancestors ever walked by the shores of Killarney or heard the lilt of the Irish pipes, I, too, feel very much a part of this day because this is the kind of land that I want and the kind of a land I want to leave for my children.

This is why my ancestors crossed the seas and the mountains and the endless arid plains. This is why every American regardless of his creed can bow his head in a moment of reverence on St. Patrick's Day.

In the days that have passed since I assumed this office, on a day that will live in cruel tragedy, I have found our Nation's greatest strength lies in the dream of America-America the land of hope, America the land of opportunity.

All the slings and arrows of our opponents in the world have never succeeded in destroying that image. Whenever and wherever we are cursed, it is basically because the people have been misled into believing that we have strayed somehow from our dream.

To me, nothing is more important than to maintain this as a land of compassion where the sick of body can find assistance and the sick of heart can always find hope. All of our programs and all of our proposals and all of our actions, both at home and abroad, must measure up to that ideal; and when we talk of American ideals our thoughts must be tonight of President Kennedy.

Three months ago, I had the saddest possible honor to confer on him posthumously, along with another great John, Pope John XXIII, the highest civil honor ever awarded by the President of the United States. I would like to read you tonight just a portion of the citation which I read on that occasion:

"John Fitzgerald Kennedy, thirty-fifth President of the United States, soldier, scholar, statesman, defender of freedom, pioneer for peace, author of hope--combining courage with reason, and combating hate with compassion, he led the land he loved toward new frontiers of opportunity."

John Kennedy was not the first Irishman to die in the cause of freedom, and he will not be the last. So I say to you tonight, let us never depart from the American ideal, the kind of America we want, the kind of America that John Kennedy wanted us to have:

An America that is renowned not so much for its might as it is for its morality; an America that is seeking justice at home and seeking peace with all nations;

An America that is committed always to the force of law instead of to the law of force; an America proud of its unity, but ashamed of attempts at uniformity;

An America that would remember the weak and the unfortunate; an America that would regard the existence of poverty as a challenge to be actively overcome and to do something about, instead of a social problem to be passively and privately endured;

An America where the humblest citizen can speak his piece and write his thoughts and worship his God without the heavy hand of bias or government barring his purpose or his hearing a knock on the bedroom door at midnight;

An America that is both prudent and progressive, that is both frugal and courageous; an America that is eager to redeem its promissory notes of equal citizenship, ashamed that they are so long overdue, and determined that never again will they be discounted or denied in the treasury of the American conscience;

An America that would always remember that in a world of power politics, smaller nations can often have the power of ideas; an America that would want the assistance of allies, but never the support of satellites;

An America that would use its strength to increase the hopes of peace, never using the language of arrogance to others nor whispering the language of fear to itself.

It would be an America that would set the healing and the reconciliation of nations far above all other prizes; an America that is powerful without a trace of belligerence; an America that is faithful to its own national ideals without ever trying to be a moral censor to other nations; an America whose strength would save us from defeat and whose wisdom would protect us from appeasement, whose justice would save us from failure in the high enterprises of democracy where compassion is an example for the other 119 nations in the world; an America whose leadership would save us from disenchantment in the search for a just and an enduring peace.

Our exertions can make America an example of the rightness of our cause and bring its promise of peace someday to all the world. So in this spirit and in honor of all who share it, in memory of those who died for it, I am honored and proud to come tonight to extend to you the greetings of this day. As I bid you good night, I offer you this ancient Gaelic toast:

"May the road ever rise to meet you,
May the wind ever be at your back.
May you safely be in heaven at least one hour before the devil knows you're gone;
And may the good Lord always hold you in the hollow of his hand."

Note: The President spoke in the Grand Ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. In his opening words he referred to Eugene F. Moran, Jr., president of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, His Eminence Francis Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop of New York, Edward F. Cavanagh, Jr., Deputy Mayor of New York, and James Farley, former Postmaster General and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Later he referred to P. Kenneth O'Donnell and Lawrence F. O'Brien, Special Assistants to the President, David F. Powers, Special Assistant in the White House Office, Richard Maguire, treasurer, and John M. Bailey, chairman, of the Democratic National Committee, George E. Reedy, Special Assistant to the President who would soon become Press Secretary to the President, and Ralph A. Dungan, Special Assistant to the President.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Remarks in New York City at a Dinner of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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