By BRIAN BRENNAN
Published November 18, 2013
I was 20 years old at the time so I remember, of course, where I was the day Kennedy was shot. I had been out visiting with friends that afternoon and when I got home my mother was in tears. “The president’s been killed,” she said. “Dev’s been killed?” I said, thinking she was referring to Ireland’s Brooklyn-born president, Éamon de Valera. “No, President Kennedy,” said my mother. “Somebody shot him.”
For my mother, as for many in Ireland, it was as if a member of the family had been taken from us. United States President John F. Kennedy had visited Ireland five months earlier, in June of 1963, and thousands of us had stood for hours along O’Connell Street in the centre of Dublin, waiting to catch a glimpse of this famous descendant of Irish immigrants as his motorcade rolled past. We listened on our transistor radios as Air Force One touched down at Dublin Airport and de Valera greeted his American counterpart in Irish. “I thought it fitting that my first words of welcome to you, Mr. President, should be in our native language,” said Dev. “The language of your ancestors.”
For Ireland’s national broadcaster, covering the four-day presidential visit was its first major challenge as a television service. Telefís Éireann, as the service was called, had been on the air for 18 months and had never before attempted to do a live outside broadcast of this scope. More experienced BBC hands had to be called in to provide mobile units and technical advice.
As was the custom in those innocent times, the president rode in an open car through the streets of Dublin, hatless, smiling and waving. When the motorcade passed Nelson’s Pillar, people in the offices above tossed rolls of toilet paper and bus tickets onto the street. “Here comes a ticker tape,” said the excited television commentator. “This looks more like Wall Street.”
The following day, in the Irish Independent, a reporter described Kennedy as “the youthful president.” My father bristled. “What do they mean, ‘youthful’?” he said. “He’s the same age as I am: 46.” I don’t know if my father considered himself old, but I do know he didn’t view himself as being part of what the poet Robert Bly would later call the sibling society – eternal half-adults, Peter Pans in jeans, who consigned their kids to summer camps and their elders to old folks’ homes.
Kennedy spent his first night in Ireland at the home of the American ambassador in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. The next morning he flew by helicopter to County Wexford, where his great-grandfather, Patrick Kennedy, had lived and farmed before immigrating to the United States in 1849. The president joked that if his great-grandfather hadn’t left, he – the president – might now be working at the local fertilizer factory or at a shop belonging to his cousin. “I’m glad to be here,” said Kennedy. “It took 115 years to make this trip.” Some American press photographers tried to persuade his Irish cousins to pose with a pig in the kitchen of the ancestral home, but they – bless their hearts – refused to have anything to do with this blatant attempt at ethnic stereotyping.
Kennedy spent four hours in County Wexford. He dined on homemade salmon sandwiches at a tea party in the farmyard and offered a toast, “a cup of tea to all the Kennedys who went and all the Kennedys who stayed.” He jokingly asked his cousins if the salmon in his sandwich was poached. A radio reporter said there were so many American flags on display that “the place looks like the 51st state of the United States.”
Over the next couple of days, Kennedy was kept busy chatting, joking, shaking hands and making speeches in Cork, Limerick, Galway and Dublin. None were as memorable as his “ich bin ein Berliner” speech in Germany the week before, but all struck the right notes in a country that had attained republican status 14 years earlier. “The Ireland of 1963 is one of the youngest of nations and the oldest of civilizations,” Kennedy told a special joint session of the Irish houses of parliament. “Ireland’s hour has come. You have something to give to the world, and that is a future of peace with freedom.”
He gave his final speech at Shannon airport, saying his visit had been the one of the most moving experiences of his life. Radio announcer John Skehan spoke for the rest of his compatriots when he said Kennedy had been a welcome guest: “The wish of everyone here in Shannon, and indeed in the country as a whole as he takes his leave, is that he should go safely and return soon.” Framed photographs of Kennedy soon appeared above the fireplaces in Irish living rooms like the pictures that families pull out of storage whenever the out-of-town relatives come to visit.
A national day of mourning was declared in Ireland following Kennedy’s funeral. Telefís Éireann had arranged for the interment ceremony to be telecast live from Arlington National Cemetery, but the satellite feed failed. Businesses throughout Ireland shut down so their staff could attend local church memorial services. Street traders left their stalls to pay their respects. Hundreds lined up to sign the book of condolence in the American embassy in Dublin. “We are darkly under the cloud of a murdered king,” wrote the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh. “For President Kennedy fitted in the grand Shakespearean meaning of that word.”
“The murder of John Fitzgerald Kennedy is a great loss to the world,” wrote Kavanagh, “but a particular one to the Irish race and the Irish spirit, of which he was never ashamed.” Far from being ashamed, Kennedy had been proud of his Irish heritage. The last words he had spoken to his Irish hosts before boarding the plane at Shannon underlined that sentiment: “I am taking, as I go back to America, all of you with me.” He added that the one word he had been happy to learn during his four days in Ireland was “fáilte” – the Irish word for welcome.
Copyright © Brian Brennan, 2013
President Kennedy in Ireland exhibition in the RTÉ Archives: http://bit.ly/1bgZzHt