Sunday 23 November 2014

Jerome Reilly: Fifty years on, memories of the President Kennedy visit remain as poignant as ever

Jerome Reilly in New Ross

Published 22/06/2013 | 12:24

"And I certainly will come back in Springtime," President John F. Kennedy said 50 years ago this month.

But he never did. Hope unrealised; ended with an assassin's bullet five months after he pledged to come back to Ireland.

And so midsummer 2013 and the return of the Kennedys to their ancestral home at Dunganstown. The town of New Ross in best bib and tucker, the Stars and Stripes fluttering on lamp posts, shopfronts splashed with red white and blue and the bands striking up a rousing chorus.

It might have descended into shlock, an over-sentimental journey into paddywhackery playing to the worst stereotypes of ourselves and the 35 million Americans who claim, with occasional bombast, Irish heritage.

Yet the JFK50 celebrations succeeded in conveying a powerful symbolism and gave pause to reflect on four short days in 1963 when a son of this soil brought a message of hope and convinced us of our own resilience and courage and perseverance.

As President  Kennedy told a hushed Dail which included among its number Deputy Henry Kenny, father of the  current Taoiseach: "I certainly believe that your future is as promising as your past is proud  and that your destiny lies, not as a peaceful island in a sea of troubles, but as a maker and shaper of world peace."

We might feel, 50 years on, that for now at least, our future holds precious little promise, but we can still welcome old friends and still offer warm and heartfelt hospitality to guests who cross the threshold.

Yesterday  his only surviving child, Caroline Kennedy-Schlossberg,  her husband Edwin, and their three children Rose, Tatiana and Jack followed in her father's footsteps back to Dunganstown

Bobby Kennedy's eldest child  Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and her husband David  linked arms with the late senator's son Douglas and Caroline's  cousin, Sydney Lawford and her husband Peter.

All, including  a phalanx of some 30 members of the extended Kennedy family' gathered around Jean Kennedy Smith, the clan matriarch, sister of JFK and who as   US  Ambassador to Ireland played her own unique role in the peace process.

For Caroline there was the added poignancy of revisiting the farmhouse and homestead  where she spent two idyllic days  in the Summer of 1967 with her brother John F. Kennedy junior.

Four years after their father's assassination the siblings arrived in Dunganstown with the full media glare.

But they were enchanted by the working farmyard with ducks and piglets and calves and  returned for a  private  visit the following day to be with their cousins.

They saw that the other children ran barefoot and much to the chagrin of  the Secret Service detail, they too ran barefoot.

The two Kennedy children grew up but now only Caroline is left. John Kennedy Jnr. or 'John John' as he was was known  was killed when his Piper Saratoga plunged into the ocean off Martha's Vineyard  in 1999. For Caroline this visit was as much about her brother as her   father and uncle.

As Kathleen Kennedy  Townsend put it "That makes everything sadder and tougher. John Kennedy knew himself that every moment in life in precious. For us (as Kennedys) we've grown up with knowing how precious life is. The Irish understand that because they've gone through so many wars and pain. You know that every moment has to be precious."

The Taoiseach was joined  in New Ross, Co. Wexford and Minister Brian Hayes in welcoming the Kennedys to the JFK Arboretum for a re-dedication ceremony and to view a major new permanent exhibition on the Kennedy Presidency.

Before that there was the official opening of the new facilities at the homestead site, which includes a new exhibition centre to display the achievements of the extended Kennedy Family and a bust in honour of the memory of Senator Edward Kennedy.

The new exhibition in the JFK Arboretum celebrates the Kennedy Presidency and contains some fascinating items that recall the era.

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