JFK & the cadets
AS a teenager in Cork, Patrick Curley had pored over 'Time' magazine articles about John F Kennedy. Now, just a few years later, he was standing two feet away from him.
Then 20, Curley was one of the cadets from the Irish Army's 36th cadet class who formed a 'Special Guard' during President Kennedy's visit to Arbour Hill Cemetery in Dublin, the burial place of the 1916 Rising leaders. On Friday, June 28, 1963, as the American president looked on intently, Curley and his fellow cadets performed the Queen Anne's Drill, more commonly known in the Irish Army as the Funeral Drill, to honour the dead.
The short display, carried out with antiquated Lee Enfield rifles by then only used for ceremonies, was to have far-reaching effects.
Now Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Curley, Rtd (70), the former cadet remembers the build-up to the US president's visit to Ireland well. "Kennedy was big stuff for us as youngsters... he was a magnetic figure ... and he put Ireland on the map. It would have been a great thing to say 'I'm going to get near Kennedy'."
Of the actual ceremony, his main memory is of wondering, "would I look at this guy if he walked by, or would I just look straight ahead? And I must admit that I did let my eyes wander, just to have a look at (Kennedy), as I was never, ever going to see him again, except on telly."
However, such was the focus on getting the complex drill right, that there wasn't time to think of much else, he says. "It was get on the truck, go and do the job, all over, get on the truck, go home and wonder what's for dinner."
But the drill performed by the cadets had made a great impression on Kennedy himself. Colonel Billy Nott, Rtd, a cadet in the next cadet class, the 37th, says that the US president was so taken with the Funeral Drill that "he requested a film of it. They didn't have it, so we recreated it some months later in Arbour Hill, and that film was sent to Kennedy."
Sadly, though, Kennedy's assassination less than five months after his trip to Ireland, on November 22, 1963, would ensure that this was not the end of the cadets' involvement with the US president.
The day after Kennedy's death, Col Nott, then 19, was up in Dublin on a day pass. A unique request had come into the Curragh barracks, but in an era before mobile phones, it took considerable ingenuity to contact the off-duty cadets and get them back to base.
"We were at a dance hall, and I got a tap on the shoulder from the manager to know was I a cadet." The cadet on duty at the barracks had thought that some of his classmates would be at that dance, and had rung the manager. Col Nott's crew-cut amongst all the Beatles-inspired haircuts had made him easy to spot.
When Col Nott and his friends arrived back at the Curragh, they discovered Jacqueline Kennedy had requested that some of the 37th cadet class perform the drill the president had so admired at his funeral in the US military's famous Arlington Cemetery.
The cadets practised the drill for a couple of hours, and didn't get to bed until 4am. When they flew to Washington DC the next day, it was the first time most of the class had been out of the country, let alone aboard a plane.
When the flight touched down, the US Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, came on board to welcome them. "He looked like a man that hadn't slept for a week," says Col Nott (68).
President Kennedy's funeral was held the following day, Monday, November 25. The cadets were standing just a couple of feet from the graveside, and could hear the "muffled drums" as the funeral cortege approached. What's more, "the world's cameras and press were looking straight down on us ...we were overawed, but we were focusing on that whatever we did, we weren't going to let the side down," remembers Col Nott.
As the cortege came past, Col Nott recognised Kennedy's widow, Jacqueline. The US army band struck up 'The Star Spangled Banner' and there was a fly past of jets. Amidst all this noise, he remembers being anxious that they wouldn't be able to hear the orders for the drill, which would be given in Irish. But the officer in charge of the guard, Lt Frank Colclough – who had also commanded the cadets of the 36th class at Arbour Hill – waited until the noise subsided, and the intricate Funeral Drill went off without a hitch.
And then it was all over. After a tour of Washington the following morning, the cadets flew back to Ireland. Says Col Nott: "I had to relate the story (to the media) again and again, but then it fell out of the news ... it surprises me now and again that young people today have never heard of it."
Both Col Nott and Lt Col Curley had long, storied careers in the Defence Forces before their retirement. Yet, despite this, they each cite these two events in 1963 as hugely significant moments in their lives.
As Col Nott points out, the involvement of the Irish cadets at Kennedy's funeral was – and still is – the only time foreign troops have rendered honours at the funeral of a US president. "It was extremely unusual. It will probably never happen again, I think it was a once-off."