It is now widely accepted that US president John F Kennedy would never have visited Limerick in 1963 were it not for the persistence of Mayor Frances Condell.
The first woman to hold theoffice in its 750 year history, she was hugely disappointed when it became known that Kennedy would be unable to include the city in his schedule.
All seemed lost when White House press secretary Pierre Salinger flew into Shannon Airport on Jun 14, a mere 12 days before Kennedy’s arrival, to make final arrangements.
Kennedy would visit Dublin, New Ross, Wexford, Cork, and Galway and depart on Air Force One from Shannon Airport in Co Clare.
The prospect of conferring the Freedom of Limerick on Kennedy in another county did not go down well, but Mayor Condell still had hopes a visit to the Treaty City could be arranged.
She met with Salinger at Shannon before he and his party flew to inspect presidential sites in Cork and Galway, and she again met him on his return.
It was the White House press secretary’s 38th birthday, and a medieval lunch was hosted in his honour at Bunratty Castle by US ambassador Matt McCloskey with external affairs minister Frank Aiken also present.
William Ryan, the head chef at Shannon Airport, baked a special peacock-coloured medieval cake with mead and honey to mark the occasion.
Salinger himself was “elected” Earl of Thomond and presided at the luncheon clad in medieval robes. But there was still no getting away from the lobbying.
Mayor Condell and other civic and political leaders including Donogh O’Malley — who was then a parliamentary secretary in the Lemass government — kept up the pressure.
The press secretary, a seasoned newspaper man from California, accepted it was only reasonable that people from the area should try to have a presidential visit.
He still insisted a visit to Limerick was unlikely, although he promised to convey Major Condell’s renewed invitation to the president on his return to Washington from his seven-and-a-half hour visit to Ireland.
Meanwhile, Limerick played one other trump card in its efforts to woo the president to the city — it was the ancestral county of the Fitzgeralds, who had gone to the US in Famine times.
In fact, Kennedy had taken the presidential oath of office on an 1850 Bible that was brought to America by his Fitzgerald forebears.
What’s more, his grandfather, John F Fitzgerald, who was mayor of Boston, visited Limerick on two occasions in search of his roots.
The first was in 1908 when he visited the site of the old Fitzgerald home at Palatine Rd in Bruff.
His wife’s mother, Mary Anne Fitzgerald, was also from Bruff and her father, Michael Hannon, was from Lough Gur, which he also visited.
When he made a return visit to Co Limerick in 1938, his daughter Rose had married Joseph P Kennedy, a member of another powerful Boston political family.
Joe was then US ambassador to Britain. He and Rose were the parents of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Rose’s grandfather Tom Fitzgerald was a broad-chested, powerfully built man from farming stock with a handsome face and a ruddy complexion.
He emigrated from Bruff in 1852 and settled in Boston, where he married Rosanna Cox, whose people came from Cavan. They had 12 children.
One of them became known as the celebrated “Honey Fitz”, who had a great interest in his Irish heritage and often took his young grandson for walks on Boston Common, pointing out the historic landmarks.
Honey Fitz predicted in 1946 that his grandson, who was then campaigning for congress, would become America’s first Irish Catholic president.
He didn’t live to see that dream come true, but President Kennedy named the presidential yacht “The Honey Fitz” in his memory.
With six days to go before the start of the president’s visit to Ireland in 1963, the word from Washington was that a stop-off in Limerick was still out.
It looked as if the Freedom of the City would have to be conferred on Kennedy at Shannon Airport.
But at 11.17pm on the night of Jun 22, US ambassador Matt McCloskey took a telephone call from the White House to say Kennedy would visit Limerick after all.
He immediately informed Mayor Condell and O’Malley and despite the late hour, the news made it on to the front pages of the following morning’s newspapers.
The ambassador said the president, when he learned that the Freedom of Limerick City was to be conferred upon him, agreed the ceremony should take place within the city boundaries.
As it turned out, Kennedy’s visit to Greenpark Racecourse in Limerick was a huge success. It was also where he uttered one of the most memorable quotes of his visit.
“This is not the land of my birth but it is the land for which I hold the greatest affection and I certainly will come back in the springtime.”
Thousands turned out to greet him including a large number of cousins from the Fitzgerald side of family.
As he shook hands with people in the crowd, the president turned to his close aides, Kenny O’Donnell and Dave Powers, pointed to an elderly man and said: “Isn’t he the image of Honey Fitz?
“And his name is Fitzgerald.”
Kennedy said it was a pleasure to see the Fitzgeralds, who had come to greet him and were in a group nearby. He asked them all to stand up.
“You see, Mr President,” Mayor Condell told him, “we the women of Limerick have a special claim on you. We claim the Fitzgerald in you and are extremely proud of your heritage.”
She thanked him for changing his plans to come to Limerick and accept the Freedom of the City.
Mayor Condell also praised Ambassador McCloskey for his patience as she kept plodding to renew the city’s request to the White House that the president should come and visit.
Pierre Saligner — who took on the persona of the Earl of Thomond at that medieval birthday lunch in Bunratty Castle — must also have been pleased.
He had reported directly to President Kennedy on his return from his brief visit to Ireland earlier in the month, having checked out the plans. Everyone was satisfied.
But, elsewhere in the United States, dark and sinister clouds were gathering.
On the day after Salinger’s return from Ireland, Jun 16, a man was seen on the dock in the port of New Orleans.
He was handing out leaflets supporting Cuban leader Fidel Castro to sailors from a US aircraft carrier.
A policeman was alerted to his presence and ordered him to leave at once, and he did so.
But the same lean and intense-looking man would be heard of again before the year was out.
His name was Lee Harvey Oswald.
*Were you in Cork when Kennedy visited, or know somebody who was? Get in touch or have your say below.
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