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Thursday 19 October 2017

How Ireland's first lady mayor expressed the nation's sorrow

Four months after meeting JFK, Frances Condell was holding back tears on RTÉ, writes Anita Guidera

Anita Guidera

'We of Limerick, mourn with them who are left to mourn." With these poignant words, Mayor of Limerick Frances Condell brought to a close her televised address on RTÉ, the day after the assassination of President John F Kennedy.

Four months after beguiling the US president with her eloquence and wit, Limerick's first lady had been called upon to articulate the feelings of a nation in mourning.

The contrast in her demeanour between these two occasions couldn't have been more striking.

A little bit of magic had happened between Limerick's first lady and the leader of the western world at Greenpark Racecourse that June day.

Sporting a hat she had made herself, Ireland's first female mayor and style icon in her own right, struck up an instant rapport with an ever-charming JFK.

"We the women of Limerick feel we have a special claim on you. We claim the Fitzgerald in you, sir, and we are extremely proud of that connection," she told him, grinning mischievously. A clearly enamoured President Kennedy declared her speech to be the best he had heard since coming to Europe.

He later sent the mayoress an autographed photograph and an engraved silver cigarette box, promising, "I'll be back in the springtime."

Within hours of the news of his assassination she sent a telegram to then Taoiseach Sean Lemass, conveying her sorrow

Then on November 23, a pale and visibly shocked Frances Condell, dressed in a sombre tweed suit, went on the national airwaves to express the shock of the Irish nation.

 

23 November 1963 - Mayor of Limerick Frances Condell pays tribute to the late President Kennedy on RTÉ News

Footage courtesy of the RTE Archives

 

 

"In a time of bewilderment, sorrow and numbing tragedy, one is often at a loss to find suitable words and indeed on this occasion, this very sad occasion, I feel sure that like many others, any words of tribute and expression on this incalculable loss, not alone to the United States but to the whole world, would be totally inadequate and insufficient," she said.

The depth of the impact of the death of President Kennedy on the woman, once touted as a future President of Ireland, became even more evident three years later when she spoke to Joseph E O'Connor of the National Archives and Records Service in Washington DC as part of the John F Kennedy Library Oral History project.

She recalled how she had heard the news of the tragic assassination.

"I was working in the kitchen and I had turned on the TV in the living room, you see, and Charles Mitchel, one of our favourite announcers, was reading the news, and suddenly, you know, there was a shocked silence, you know, and his reaction was one of profound shock.

"He just, you know, broke away from the script and he said 'President Kennedy has been shot'.

"The whole country went into mourning. I've never seen so many people cry. You know we had people here, and local heroes, national heroes you know, we've held in very high esteem, but I have never seen so many people cry."

In the course of the interview, one of only a handful conducted with Irish people, she recalled her first encounter with the US president in Cork a day ahead of his visit to Limerick.

"He said 'Are you Frances Condell?" I said 'I'm afraid I am, sir'. So then he paid me a lovely compliment. He said 'But they told me you were a grandmother'."

The tragic and untimely death of JFK impacted profoundly on the remainder of Frances Condell's public life.

Among her meticulously kept papers, now in the care of the special collections section of the library of the University of Limerick, are letters signed by the late president.

Archivist Sean Liston, who catalogued the collection, said he has no doubt why one of the most highly regarded women of her time was chosen to address a grieving nation following the Kennedy assassination.

"She would have been considered a safe pair of hands," he said.

Irish Independent

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