SOME visits everybody remembers. John F Kennedy in 1963, Pope John Paul II in 1979. However, sandwiched in between those was the visit few remember, that of the 37th President of the United States of American, Richard Milhous Nixon.
The man who remains the only president to have resigned from office – following the Watergate scandal – visited the home of his wife’s ancestors in Mayo, his own Quaker ancestors’ graves in Timahoe in Kildare, before visiting Dublin over three days in October of 1970.
An RTÉ documentary, The Forgotten Visit – to be broadcast today – charts the Nixon visit with some of the people who met, caught a glance of, or barely even remember the president on his visit 40 years ago.
Zeta Hayes was manager of Kilfrush House in Limerick when Nixon stayed there. She remembers the event fondly, down to the details of the rather large menu served to the Nixons at a banquet held at the house.
“Even before it we had a lot of security. They came and checked every bit of the house, every wardrobe; they climbed on top of everything and were all over the place. When he actually came himself, we had a secret service man outside his bedroom, a secret service man on the return of the landing, one at each end of the stairs and they changed positions every 15 minutes.
“They were all over the grounds. In the kitchen, the night of the formal dinner, we had two guys in tasting the food. There were two more guys at the bottom of the stairs leading down to our wine cellar and they were allowing nobody down there,” she recalls.
Nixon was also treated to the best of Irish food with a menu that included Irish smoked salmon, Clew Bay Oysters, Aran scallop soup, consomme with sherry, steamed Comeragh salmon with Hollandaise sauce, Cecilstown pigeon crust pie, boiled Limerick bacon and cabbage, lamb stew and fillet of Irish beef and baked potatoes.
Kevin Mulcahy, son of John A Mulcahy who owned Kilfrush House in 1970, also remembers enjoying the company of the president’s national security advisor Henry Kissinger and White House chief of staff Bob Haldeman, later imprisoned for his role in Watergate.
“I hosted the second dining sitting in the smaller room. One of the people we had was Henry Kissinger. You would think that he was a very dry man and a very serious man but he was absolutely hysterical at the dinner table. He used his German accent to great effect,” recalls Kevin.
Nixon’s visit came at the height of the Vietnam War, something that rankled with the Quaker community, of which he was a member. Rob Goodbody’s grandmother was curator of the Friends’ Historical Library, which keeps records for the Quakers in Ireland. She presented Nixon with documents and gave a short speech on the day Nixon visited his ancestors’ graves in Timahoe.
“On an occasion like this, it would be a nerve-racking experience when the eyes of the world are on you but there was much more to it than that. Amongst the Quaker community of the day it was a very controversial thing as to whether the Quaker community would get involved at all in the Nixon visit. The Vietnam War was probably at its most controversial at the time. Nixon, as a Quaker, to be involved with a war of that magnitude sat uncomfortably with Quakers worldwide,” says Rob.
It also sat uncomfortably with many Irish people, including Máirín de Burca who threw eggs at Nixon’s motorcade in Dublin, along with Martin O’Hagan who was later shot dead by the UVF.
“I was down on the quays. My friend and myself split half a dozen eggs between us. I wouldn’t let Martin stay with me because I felt that the guards might recognise me and if they pulled me in, they’d pull him in too.
“I disguised myself, I made like an American tourist. I had dark glasses, a headscarf and a trench coat, none of which I ever wore normally. We had heard that the secret service had thrown themselves about so much that the guards had said ‘Stuff this, let them look after their own president’ type of thing.
“I knew I wouldn’t get Nixon because I have no aim so I decided to aim for the windscreen. I did an overarm lob and I got it dead centre on the windscreen. I was so proud of myself. Then I was grabbed by the guard and hauled across the bridge with a clatter of an old woman saying ‘throw her in the river, throw her in the river,’” she remembers.
Journalist Donncha O Dúalaing covered the event for RTÉ and remembers the speech given by Nixon at Timahoe.
“I remember President Nixon and the speech and being very moved and touched by it and the crowds that were here. I think that what comes back to me today is that Ireland has changed in many ways but in other ways it hasn’t changed at all.
“I think of the wonder of an American president here talking about Ireland. It was unbelievable. His speech electrified us. I think it had to.”
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