The fiftieth anniversary of the visit of John F. Kennedy to Ireland has seen much commemoration, with events in Dublin and across the country marking the Presidential visit. While protest was absent during the visit of J.F.K, international coverage of the visit of Edward Kennedy to Trinity College Dublin a few years later in 1970 had plenty to say about protesters and a less-welcoming crowd. Protests against Kennedy were largely orchestrated by Maoist students, and while they ultimately failed to disrupt Kennedy’s visit in any real way, they received huge media coverage in Ireland and the United states. The Milwaukee Journal went as far as to claim “it was the first time in Irish history that more than a few isolated Irishmen even spoke against the Kennedy family.”
In March 1970 Kennedy was invited to Trinity College as part of the bicentenary celebrations of the College Historical Society. He was to give a lecture in honour of Edmund Burke, one of the most celebrated graduates of the university and indeed the society. In opposition to this visit, Kennedy was met by protests not alone at the college itself but even at Dublin Airport. This opposition was organised largely by Maoist students at the university, a small but dedicated band of left-wing activists who had a rather high-profile having launched major protests against the visit of King Baudoin of Belgium to the college in the summer of 1968.
Conor McCabe has written on the history of the Maoist tendency among the student left in Trinity College Dublin, pinpointing November 1965 as the moment ‘The Internationalists’ were founded. In his article he identifies Hardial Bains, a lecturer in bacteriology who was originally from India, as crucially important to the growth of Maoism in the college. Bains was also referenced in American media reports at the time of Kennedy’s visit, with The Meridian Journal claiming he had come from Canada to Trinity and since returned there, “leaving a hardcore of about 40 Trinity Maoists” An article on the Maoists published in 1970 by Nusight, and available to read in full here, was a little less generous, estimating that their membership was something around fifteen in the college, but noting:
There are quite a few Maoists in Ireland now. In Trinity College there are about 15, in U.C.D. about 8. In U.c.c. there are only 4 or so, while in Galway university there are about 5. In Limerick there are around 6 while in Dublin outside the university there are possibly another 10 to 15. This numbers in all about 50 Maoists.
In addition to this there are numerous camp followers in the universities. Various dilletante socialists follow the Maoists because they feel they are the “authentic” socialists. Other students follow them but do not join either because they are not allowed to or because they are unwilling to commit themselves wholly to the group. This might bring the total of Maoists in the country up to about 70-80. They remain nevertheless a static group
The Internationalists called on Trinity students to protest against the visit of Edward Kennedy in propaganda leaflets, even drawing on the memory of the 1963 visit of JFK by noting that such visits by the family to Ireland were designed to present themselves as “friendly visiting celebrities” and to confuse people “about the true nature of U.S imperialism”. The students condemned Kennedy as “representative of the most barbarous class of parasites the world has seen”, and called on students to join a mass demonstration against him at 7.30 on Tuesday 3 March, designed to coincide with his speech.
Kennedy’s visit was not limited to Dublin, he also visited New Ross, where a crowd of several hundred welcomed him warmly. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune in the U.S claimed that “students from Dublin – the ‘long haired brigade’ as the locals call them- invaded the town during the night and plastered up posters saying ‘Oppose Ted Kennedy: American Imperialist!’ but most were taken down before Kennedy arrived from Dublin.” Kennedy had first visited New Ross in 1962, but in 1970 the purpose of his visit was to visit the John F. Kennedy Memorial Park, which had been opened to commemorated his murdered brother. A rather different environment than what awaited him in Dublin, newspaper reports noted that he was “surrounded by a crowd of around 200 jostling to shake his hand.”
When Kennedy spoke on the topic of Edmund Burke at Trinity College Dublin on the Tuesday night, it was reported that “demonstrators outside displayed portraits of Communist Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung alongside a ‘Down With Kennedy!’ banner”. Kennedy’s speech was interrupted by a student in the gallery waving the little red book of Mao’s theory, shouting “Down with U.S imperialism- Kennedy get out!”. Kennedy joked “there goes one of the great debaters” as he was removed from the hall.
As Kennedy left the university, his car was blockaded by a few dozen students, with a Garda force of only forty reportedly on hand. The pounding of the car lasted for several minutes, with Gardaí arresting one student demonstrator. This was not to prove the only confrontation between Kennedy and the Internationalists however, as protesters also made their presence felt outside his hotel by attempting to prevent his driver bringing him to meet with the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch. Even prior to his departure from the city at Dublin Airport, Kennedy was again greeted by protesters. Though a crowd of 200 or so gathered to cheer him, there were also opposition voices.
The Internationalists remain a fascinating chapter in the history of the student left and the broader radical left in Ireland. At the time, they were viewed by some in the media as a very real threat. In 1970, The Irish Times wrote that Maoism was gaining some influence in Irish secondary schools, with the suspension of four young Dublin students receiving significant coverage in the paper.
Yet others viewed things differently. The Nusight article quoted above ended on the following note, only months after the Kennedy visit:
Anyone who understands the Irish working class knows that the Maoists are not a threat to the status quo in Ireland. They are however a threat to the radical left in that they discredit socialism in the eyes of the ordinary people and are a constant source of ammunition for professional scare-mongers in Ireland