The best four days of JFK’s life

Kennedy always got close to Irish crowds, writes Ray Ryan

The best four days of JFK’s life

JFK did everything to make his homecoming as informal and enjoyable as possible, but security and protocol on a scale never before seen in Ireland were to the fore.

Kennedy chatted, joked, and shook hands with as many people as possible, often surging towards crowds to their delight and the dismay of his Secret Service agents.

He also showed an endearing willingness to stop his motorcade, like in Wexford when he met with his third cousin, Mother Clement, at the gates of the Loreto Convent, with nurses outside the county hospital, and with nuns at the doors of the Convent of Mercy.

In Galway, as his motorcade was passing the residence of city mayor PD Ryan, he asked the driver to stop. He got out, shook hands with the mayor’s mother, Catherine, his wife Breda, and their five children.

A woman from Galway, who had read that his back was giving him trouble, sent him a box containing a small bottle of holy water from Knock, some clay from the apparition gable at the Mayo shrine, and a promise to have a Mass offered for his intentions.

At the ancestral home at Dunganstown, he met with Mary Ryan, her family, and all the Kennedy cousins. Out in the concrete farmyard from which his great grandfather had emigrated, he became the fear an tí at an open-air tea party. He teased his cousins as to whether the salmon in his sandwich had been poached.

After cutting a ceremonial cake and handing slices around, he proposed a toast to all the Kennedys who had gone away and to all who had remained at home.

He asked a Secret Service agent to locate Robert Burrell, the man who had given him directions on the road from New Ross 16 years earlier, when he had travelled over from Lismore Castle in Waterford to trace his relatives and take family snapshots with his own camera.

Later, in Wexford, he placed a wreath at the memorial to Commodore John Barry, the father of the US navy, whose sword he had in his office.

Back in Dublin he gave an inspiring address to a joint session of both houses of the Oireachtas, which helped heal the bitterness of the Civil War. William T Cosgrave, the first president of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, paid his first visit to the Dáil chamber in 20 years for JFK.

In Limerick, JFK described Mayor Frances Condell’s address of welcome as the best speech he had heard since he had come to Europe, and then he flew to Shannon Airport by helicopter to board Air Force One.

He told aides it was the best four days of his life, the highlight being the ceremonial drill of the honour guard of the Irish army cadets when he placed a wreath on the Arbour Hill graves of the executed 1916 leaders. His wish was that a similar ceremonial drill be introduced at Arlington National Cemetery.

That desire was sadly fulfilled five months later when the cadets rendered honours at his graveside as he was being laid to rest. Jacqueline requested their presence because she knew how much they had impressed him in Dublin.

Kennedy pledged before his departure from Ireland to return in the springtime and see Old Shannon’s face once more. Sadly it was not to be.

*Were you in Cork when Kennedy visited, or know somebody who was? Get in touch or have your say below.

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