Fulfilling a husband’s wish

A real life “guardian angel” from the “Gate of Heaven” saved Jacqueline Kennedy from drowning when she holidayed in Co Waterford in 1967.

Fulfilling a husband’s wish

It happened when President Kennedy’s widow and their children, Caroline and John, spent a month at Woodstown House.

She came to Ireland with her family to fulfil the wishes of her assassinated husband who was so much taken with his 1963 visit that he vowed to return with his wife and children.

That was not to be, but in time, Jacqueline brought Caroline and John on holiday to Ireland with family friends.

Legendary racehorse trainer Phonsie O’Brien was instrumental in finding a Georgian mansion in Co Waterford that was suitable.

“I am happy to be here in this land that my husband loved so much,” she said on arrival at Shannon Airport.

But the getaway break for the former US first lady almost ended in tragedy when she got into difficulties one day while swimming off a sandy secluded beach near the residence.

News of the incident did not become public until a letter written by Mrs Kennedy to a Secret Service chief in Washington was uncovered.

“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.

“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, when I felt a great porpoise by my side.”

US Secret Service agent Jack Walsh, a towering, silver-haired US Marine Corps veteran of the Korean War, was the person who came to her rescue and took her ashore.

“Then I sat on the beach coughing up sea water for half an hour,” she recalled.

Mrs Kennedy urged the Secret Service to award Walsh its highest commendation and requested that he lead the detail protecting her family.

During her visit, Mrs Kennedy took her children to Dunganstown and sent them back again the following day.

She also visited Lismore Castle, attended a performance by the Dunhill Players of John B Keane’s play Many Young Men of Twenty in the local hall, and attended a number of official and other functions.

As a guest of Taoiseach Jack Lynch, she went to the Irish Sweeps Derby at the Curragh where she saw Lester Piggott steer the favourite Ribocco, an American bred, to a one-length victory in front of 60,000 people.

The Kennedys were protected at all times by armed gardaí headed by Seamus “Maxi” McMahon, a Donegal-born detective inspector from the Special Branch.

A trio of Secret Service agents including Walsh — whose ancestors were believed to have been from Kerry — was also deployed to ensure their safety.

The media generally honoured a request from the Government to respect the privacy of Mrs Kennedy and her children.

When the Kennedy children became too old for Secret Service protection, Walsh switched to the agency’s office in his native Boston, where he co-ordinated protection when Pope John Paul II visited the city in 1979.

He died in 2011, aged 79.

Mrs Kennedy, who went on to marry Greek shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis, died in 1994.

She was 64 and is buried beside her husband in Arlington Cemetery, with the eternal flame she had put in place continuing to burn to this day.

There were eight honorary pall bearers at her funeral. Seven were her nephews and the other was John Frances Michael Walsh, the Secret Service agent from the “Gate of Heaven” parish church in South Boston, who saved her from drowning at Woodstown in the summer of 1967.

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

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