Jackie Kennedy’s love of, and visits to, Ireland

As 'Jackie' opens in cinemas, Ed Power looks at her love of and visits to Ireland.

Jackie Kennedy’s love of, and visits to, Ireland

On a clear August day in 1950, two young Americans toured Blarney Castle in the company of an Irish priest.

The visitors wore expensive attire and spoke in the mannered accents of New York’s moneyed elites.

When it was suggested they might like to kiss the Blarney Stone, they responded enthusiastically in the affirmative.

Dangling from medieval balustrades was not a feature of life on Manhattan’s Upper West Side or at their sprawling weekend retreat on Long Island.

A little over a decade later, the younger of the two would be one of the most photographed people in the world — a fashion icon and celebrity but ultimately a figure of pity too.

Yet on that balmy evening nobody paid much attention to 21-year-old socialite Jacqueline Bouvier as she explored the castle with stepbrother Hugh Auchincloss and Fr Joseph Leonard, an old friend of the family.

If Ireland was not immediately entranced by the future first lady, she was besotted with the country from the outset.

Jackie Kennedy and Fr Joseph Leonard, with whom she began a correspondence. Picture: Irish Times/Sheppards
Jackie Kennedy and Fr Joseph Leonard, with whom she began a correspondence. Picture: Irish Times/Sheppards

With 73-year-old Fr Leonard as chaperone, young Jacqueline attended the Abbey Theatre, dined at Jammet’s, Dublin’s finest French restaurant, and spent freely on Waterford Crystal.

Upon returning to America, she would commence a correspondence with Leonard, which would last until his death in 1964 and covered her marriage to JFK, her years as first lady, and the life after her husband’s assassination (in 2014 the letters were the subject of a dispute which saw them put forward and later withdrawn from auction).

Jacqueline’s love for Ireland is briefly referenced in Jackie, the striking new movie in which Natalie Portman portrays the first lady as a ghostly figure, her emotions buried deep beneath her perfectly prim exterior.

JFK has just been shot and, as his stunned retinue boards Air Force One for the flight back to Washington, a hysterical Jacqueline insists the Irish cadets whom her husband so enjoyed watching on his trip to Ireland be present at the funeral.

The moment is throwaway — but a testament, nonetheless, to the abiding affection president and first lady held for the country of Kennedy’s ancestors.

Jackie Kennedy with her children John Jr and Caroline arriving at Shannon Airport on June 15, 1967.
Jackie Kennedy with her children John Jr and Caroline arriving at Shannon Airport on June 15, 1967.

Jackie, directed by Chilean art-house filmmaker Pablo Larraín, takes place in a heightened reality, through which its eponymous protagonist drifts, a lost soul struggling to keep her inner turmoil from the world.

The only person with whom she shares her feelings is a priest, played by John Hurt and seemingly modelled on Fr Leonard, who had become a close confidante.

Indeed it was to Leonard that Jackie turned in 1952 to reveal she had fallen for a swaggering young politician from Massachusetts.

“I think I’m in love with — and I think it would interest you — John Kennedy,” she wrote.

“He’s the son of the ambassador to England — the second son — the oldest was killed. He’s 35 and a congressman.

“Maybe it will end very happily — or maybe, since he’s this old and set in his ways and cares so desperately about his career, he just won’t want to give up that much time to extracurricular things like marrying.”

She did not accompany her husband on his June 1963 visit to Ireland. But, as per her request, a troupe of Irish cadets flew to Washington for the president’s funeral later that year.

John F Kennedy
John F Kennedy

They were allowed to bear arms, the first foreign troops to do so in the American capital since British forces burned the White House to the ground in the War of 1812 (commanded, ironically, by an Irishman).

The cadets crossed the Atlantic as America was engulfed in hysteria.

Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspected assassin, was shot by Jack Ruby while the flight was in the air.

They touched down in New York’s Idlewild Airport where they were immediately set upon by photographers. Anything to do with the Kennedy death was news — even the arrival of fresh-faced soldiers from the old country.

“We got word on the Friday night [that JFK had been shot] and everyone was shocked,” remembers Felix O’Callaghan, one of the cadets who attended the funeral.

“We met President de Valera on the tarmac as we prepared to board the plane. Most of us had never been on a boat, never mind a plane. It was only as we were halfway across the Atlantic that we realised what a big deal this was.”

The late Éamon de Valera with Jacqueline Kennedy in Washington, May 1964.
The late Éamon de Valera with Jacqueline Kennedy in Washington, May 1964.

Jackie culminates with the funeral march from downtown Washington to the president’s final resting place at Arlington Cemetery.

Standing to attention near the grave were the Irish troops. O’Callaghan recalls the moment with clarity.

“We waited for two-and-a-half hours for the cortege,” he says.

“We could hear the music all the time, drawing closer and closer. Nobody was particularly excited. We were professional soldiers doing a professional job.’

In Ireland, Kennedy had pledged to return one day soon with his family. That opportunity was denied him.

In 1967 Jacqueline visited with their two children, Caroline and John Jr.

This prompted something of a frenzy among the media when she went swimming at a beach near the holiday residence at Woodstown House, Co Waterford.

Jacqueline Kennedy (1929 - 1994) with her children Caroline and John at Shannon Airport, at the start of a family holiday in Ireland, 15th June 1967. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Jacqueline Kennedy (1929 - 1994) with her children Caroline and John at Shannon Airport, at the start of a family holiday in Ireland, 15th June 1967. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

She attended Lismore Castle, took in a performance of John B Keane’s Many Young Men of Twenty at the local hall and, as guest of taoiseach Jack Lynch, attended a race meet at the Curragh.

“All [along] the route from Shannon to Woodstown the people lined the streets of the towns and villages and gave Ireland’s No 1 tourist a tremendous welcome,” reported the Cork Examiner.

“The people of Waterford. fully cognisant of the much publicised desire of the widow of the late President Kennedy, for ‘a quiet holiday’ gave her and her party a warm but restrained welcome when she arrived at the city. There was hand-clapping but no cheering.

"An old woman standing near Reginald’s Tower summed the welcome up in this way: ‘We want to show Mrs. Kennedy that she is welcome here and beyond that we don’t want to interfere.’”

The trip nearly ended in tragedy as Jacqueline almost drowned in the choppy waters near Woodstown and had to be rescued by a bodyguard.

“In mid-channel I found myself in a terrible current. I could not make the land opposite and the sea was so cold you could not hold your fingers together,” she wrote in a letter to the Secret Service.

“I am a very good swimmer and can swim for miles and hours, but the combination of current and cold were something I had never known.

"There was no one to yell to. I was becoming exhausted, swallowing water and slipping past the spit of the land.”

Jacqueline Kennedy with her children Caroline and John in the Kennedy ancestral home a t Dunganstown, Wexford, in June 1967, with Mary Ryan, Maeve Rowe, Josie Grennan , Mrs John Fenlon, James Kennedy, Margaret Kirwan, and Mary Ryan. Picture: London Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty
Jacqueline Kennedy with her children Caroline and John in the Kennedy ancestral home a t Dunganstown, Wexford, in June 1967, with Mary Ryan, Maeve Rowe, Josie Grennan , Mrs John Fenlon, James Kennedy, Margaret Kirwan, and Mary Ryan. Picture: London Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty

Jackie is a stark but ultimately uplifting movie in which Jacqueline Kennedy summons a steely resolve in order to preserve her husband’s legacy.

While it gives a sense of the extraordinary challenges Jacqueline faced after Kennedy was shot, the central character remains deeply elusive.

Not even a talented actress such as Portman could completely solve the puzzle posed by that mysterious smile and distant gaze.

“Jacqueline Kennedy was very much a woman of the skies, which is beautifully portrayed in the film,” remembers Felix O’Callaghan, who attended a special screening of Jackie in New Ross last week in association with the JFK Trust.”

She was always that bit ethereal and withdrawn, someone very much in the background. The film shows her strength and her character…

She was a very dignified, very reserved woman.”

  • Jackie is in cinemas from tomorrow

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