Why is this memorial to an American so important to the Birmingham Irish? At one level the answer is easy. John F. Kennedy (JFK) was genuinely regarded across the Irish Diaspora as a figure of pride and hope. His family history offered parallels for very many Irish people and his depiction as a modern, successful and conscientious statesman caught the optimism of the time. This fourth generation Irish American was regarded as a true ‘Son of Erin’ across the world and this helps to explain the sense of loss so keenly felt by Irish people on his assassination in November 1963. Despite the passage of half a century and even with a more realistic assessment of the Kennedy legacy in the intervening years, his memory still strikes a genuine chord with many Irish people. However, the story of Birmingham’s ‘JFK’ Memorial itself is intimately bound up with the City’s Irish and wider communities and is worth consideration in its own right.Following Kennedy’s assassination, the Lord Mayor of Birmingham launched a general appeal for funds to raise a memorial. Initially, this met with little success but the Irish community ensured the memorial proceeded by raising the substantial sum of £5,000.00 through a range of events and collections. By this time, the construction of Birmingham’s flagship Inner Ring Road was well under way, with the City Council envisaging a series of public art installations, to be located at strategic points around the route. The Kennedy Memorial was included in these plans and Kenneth Budd was commissioned to design murals for pedestrian walkways at Old Square (‘Memorial to Old Square’, 1967), Holloway Circus (‘Horse Fair in 1908’, 1967) and Saint Chad’s Circus (‘J.F.K. Memorial’ and ‘History of Snow Hill’, both 1968).
The Irish community took great pride in paying for and presenting the Kennedy Memorial to its adopted city. It relished its growing self confidence and recognised that like the Kennedy family in America, Birmingham’s Irish were increasingly contributing to civic life and celebrating their role within wider society. The memorial reflected this, being a substantial structure consisting of a large pool and water feature in front of a mural. The 1980s view shows two women sitting on the pool wall and gives an idea of the mural’s size.* This also provides an insight to the memorial’s significance, with Kennedy reaching out to black and white people alike and a white American policeman (so often drawn from the Irish population) showing solidarity with a black man. Out of view are mosaic representations of JFK’s brother Teddy and Martin Luther King Junior, both intimately linked with civil rights issues in America and beyond. Also out of view is the inscription which captures the ethos of the memorial, albeit with language which if sincerely expressed now jars:
‘There are no white or coloured signs on the graveyards of battle’
Kennedy regarded civil rights as being about morality as much as concerning constitutional and legal issues and this focus had a particular resonance amongst Birmingham’s Irish population. Not only was the City becoming more ethnically diverse, but people were conscious that its Alabama namesake had been a staunch promoter of segregation and a persistent thorn in the side of the Kennedy administration over civil rights. In Northern Ireland the civil rights movement had gained inspiration from the American model and for many people this formed a backdrop to the dedication of the Memorial in July 1968. This event also had a certain poignancy as it followed the assassinations of Martin Luther King (April 1968) and Robert Kennedy (June 1968). Enoch Powell had also delivered his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech against immigration in Birmingham in April 1968, which seemed to challenge the essential message of the Kennedy Memorial.
The JFK Memorial promoted tolerance and co-operation and in turn was promoted as an icon of the new Birmingham. It regularly featured in promotional literature for the City and on postcards etc. Its location under the twin towers of Saint Chad’s Cathedral and across from high-rise Kennedy Tower and Lloyd House lent itself to wide angle views emphasising the City’s Gothic elegance and startling modernity. The Irish community was proud of its role in this civic image making, but within six years the community’s confidence would be shattered by the pub bombings and other atrocities. At times during the 1970s and 1980s, the memorial’s core message seemed a distant aspiration but through perseverance by members of all communities, the Irish community slowly regained that self confidence which had marked the 1960s. When the Council removed the memorial during a road re-modelling programme, the community lobbied to ensure that its spirit was preserved. An agreement was reached with the Council and the designer’s son Oliver Budd was commissioned to re-create the central features of the mural in Digbeth. Oliver referred to his father’s archive of original drawings and notes during the project and the opportunity was taken to amend the design slightly, the original inscription being replaced with:
‘A man may die, nations may rise and fall but an idea lives on’
The memorial also now reflects local Irish involvement in a way that the original did not. Included within the crowd is a representation of the late Mike Nangle, in recognition of his being the first Irish born Lord Mayor of Birmingham.
The Kennedy Memorial now occupies a prime site overlooking a major thoroughfare and standing astride the River Rea at the historic heart of Birmingham. It still proclaims its core message of tolerance and co-operation, but it also provides a fitting symbol of the resilience and commitment of Birmingham’s own communities to overcome difficulties and work to fulfil the promise of that core message. Saint Patrick would approve.
* This photograph was taken by the photographic team at Birmingham City Engineer’s Department (BCC Departmental 2011/199 number 24). We would be delighted to learn the identity of the women in the photograph and the context in which it was taken. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org