Analysis: the Irish ambassador's American reports show that 1969 looked quite different at the time compared to how it does in hindsight

By John Gibney, Royal Irish Academy

In 1964 William P. Fay became Ireland's seventh ambassador to the United States. Born in Dublin, Fay had joined what was then the Department of External Affairs in 1941 and served as ambassador in the US until September 1969. Centenaries have hogged the limelight in recent years, but 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of a sequence of events that were of profound cultural and political influence, especially in the US.

Part of Fay’s duties were to transmit "confidential reports" back to the Department of External Affairs in Dublin, where they circulated among the higher echelons of administration and government. Browsing through what Fay and his colleagues deemed important enough to report on 50 years ago reveals how 1969 could look very different to contemporaries then it might do in hindsight. It shows that the reconstruction of the past inevitably owes a great deal to the perspective of those who witnessed its events, not to mention sheer chance.

The spring of 1969 in the US was marked by the transition of power from the presidency of Lyndon Johnson to that of Richard Nixon. Fay’s assessment of Johnson’s noted his achievements, in terms his progressive social and economic policies, not to mention "spectacular" progress on civil rights. Johnson’s speech in response to the attack on civil rights marchers in Selma in 1965 could "be heard with advantage in Northern Ireland these days". But the US commitment to the war in Vietnam had been Johnson’s downfall.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, the Royal Irish Academy's Kate O'Malley on the first year of Richard Nixon's presidency

Within less than a fortnight, Fay was reporting on the inauguration of Nixon. An interview with William P. Rogers, the incoming Secretary of State, soon followed, and "points of mutual interest" between the US and Ireland included the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Middle East, and tensions in Northern Ireland. Rogers noted Irish American demands "for action by the United States to vindicate Civil Rights in Northern Ireland", demands that Fay dismissed as those of "fanatics".

A focus on Irish concerns naturally brought Senator Edward Kennedy into view, as he was now deputy leader and Democratic Party whip in the US senate. Here was "a young and dynamic deputy leader, and one who has a magic name", who was already tipped as a 1972 presidential candidate; indeed, Nixon had supposedly been warned to expect this.

Yet the Irish consulate in Boston entered a caveat: Kennedy was described as having "started too soon to eye the US presidency" and that he was "more presentable, but has not got the same intelligence and grasp" as his deceased brothers. Kennedy also seemed to exert an indirect influence on the annual presentation of shamrock at the White House on St Patrick’s Day. Fay noted that this was a more cordial occasion than those in previous years, possibly, in his view, because Nixon intended to court the semi-legendary "Irish vote" with an eye to facing Kennedy in 1972.

From RTÉ Archives, Frank Hall interviews Senator Edward Kennedy for RTÉ News in 1962

As far as the Irish embassy in Washington was concerned, spring was dominated by a new US president and the inevitable Irish diplomatic activity around St Patrick’s Day. The latter extended to a trip to Detroit in late March. Given the relative lack of an Irish diplomatic footprint beyond the immediate hinterlands of the consulates, Fay argued for more regular outreach; such visits could prevent avoid Irish American communities developing a sense of "alienation from official Irish affairs which elements disloyal to our government may be able to exploit". 

Fay visited the Ford plant at Dearborn and noted the presence of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the GAA. Indeed, the building in which he spoke on Northern Ireland, Irish economic development, and the 50th anniversary of the first Dáil once belonged to the Detroit Gaelic League, who at one stage had organised Irish classes in the city.

International affairs dominated Fay’s reporting in late spring and summer: the Biafran Civil War, possible peace moves in the Vietnam War, and overtures to the USSR, not least on grounds that regional conflicts such as that in Vietnam could escalate into a wider confrontation between superpowers. Fay’s last report, dated August 1st, dealt with Nixon touring countries in Asia and the possibility of new US policies in the region. But Fay had returned to Ireland and was not present at his station when the Troubles erupted in earnest in August. A more junior diplomat, Sean Ó hÉideáin, deputised in his absence and the subjective nature of reporting is reflected in changes of style as well as substance.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, the Royal Irish Academy's Kate O'Malley on the slaying of Hollywood actress Sharon Tate and her friends by Charles Manson and his followers in 1969

While Fay was largely preoccupied with high politics and international affairs, Ó hÉideáin may have been more attuned to realities on the ground, as his reports from Washington resembled those from Irish consulates elsewhere in the US rather than those of his immediate superior. The Irish consulate in Boston was "inundated" with queries in the second half of August, such as who best to donate money to in order to alleviate distress in Northern Ireland (the official answer was generally the Red Cross), and even how best to donate blood.

The view from the consulates offer a greater insight into the bread and butter issues that Irish diplomats faced at this juncture. These included fielding media queries, providing assistance to the US tour undertaken by Bernadette Devlin MP, gauging the response of Irish-America to the burgeoning Troubles and even managing tensions arising from sympathies to the IRA and hostility to the Irish government. An example is a phone call to the consulate in Chicago from an alleged veteran of the border campaign, who "was quite abusive but seemed a little more reasonable after a long argument".

But what do the 1969 reports tell us about the US at the end of the 1960s, to paraphrase Joan Didion? The shadow of the upheavals of 1968 lay across Fay’s reporting from Washington. His assessment of Lyndon Johnson referred to "a year of tragedy and bitterness…marred by the murder of two of America’s most remarkable men [Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy]…by riots and bloodshed". This was echoed in his accounts of Nixon.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, the Royal Irish Academy's Kate O'Malley on the 1969 Stonewall riots

The US civil rights movement, especially in terms of its relevance to Northern Ireland, was naturally a recurring theme. And a string of ongoing references to the Apollo programme hint at how this had captured the public imagination. But the Counterculture of the 1960s is conspicuously absent (an issue, it should be said, that is apparently also true of other accounts by diplomats in this era). Many of the events that have garnered attention 50 years later, such as the Stonewall riots or Woodstock, simply do not feature.

This is not to say that these diplomatic reports are parochial accounts, but they were filtered through the prism of what Fay and others deemed relevant to report back to Dublin. Different diplomats may have seen different things, and circumstances may also have prevented the reporting of these by the Irish ambassador.  

Fay died suddenly in Dublin on September 7th that year and he had been absent from the US for much of a period that witnessed a sequence of iconic events, such as the Chappaquiddick incident that effectively ended Ted Kennedy’s presidential ambitions, Woodstock and even the notorious murders committed by Charles Manson and his followers. One can safely assume that Fay would surely have flagged the significance of the first of these to his superiors, had he not been obliged to return home. What else might he have recorded had he lived?

Dr John Gibney is Assistant Editor with the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series. He is a former Irish Research Council awardee. All quotations above reproduced by permission of the Director of the National Archives of Ireland

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ