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Saturday 24 June 2017

The crowd went wild when Ronnie tore up the official speech and spoke from the heart ...

Derek Davis was MC on the day President Ronald Reagan came to visit Ballyporeen, Co Tipperary. It was a day filled with tears, laughter – andtension between gardai and the Secret Service

I was running out of things to say. The huge crowd in the square in Ballyporeen, Co Tipperary, was getting restless and the President's helicopter was late. I had been handed two double-spaced cards by a Whitehouse official that began with the words: "In a few moments the man you love, the man you have come to see, will de-plane..."

I promised to use them and did so by scribbling notes on the back. Washington-speak would not have gone down well in Ballyporeen.

I turned to a small Secret Service man at the side of the platform and asked him politely: "Will the President's helicopter pass over the graveyard where his ancestors are interred?"

He spoke into his left wrist: "Nighthawk, this is Emo. Will the boss's chopper buzz the boneyard?"

I wasn't meant to be there at all. The local committee who were welcoming Ronald Reagan to the village had first asked Andy O'Mahoney, who had some connection with the area. They wanted a master of ceremonies. After some deliberation Andy, for reasons of his own, declined.

I wasn't interested in being some sort of warm-up act before Reagan appeared. Then it was explained that I would be introducing Reagan -- beside him on the platform.

That posed another dilemma. Very few people in Ireland were fans of Reagan's foreign policy. He had been criticised by the Irish bishops and by most media commentators, but I took my cue from John Hume and Teddy Kennedy, who stressed the importance of honouring the office, if not the man.

So, I sought permission from my RTE newsroom boss Wesley Boyd. "You can do it so long as you make it clear that you are a journalist from the RTE newsroom," he told me.

At that time I was presenting the main Nine O'Clock news with Anne Doyle and was a bit surprised that I would have to submit photos and proof of identity.

My biggest problem was getting down as far as Clonmel by 6am the following morning before the roads would be closed. An angling buddy, Martin Murphy, offered to drive and together we found our way to Ballyporeen early in the morning of the visit.

I had only a vague outline of what was meant to happen and had nothing prepared. I needed information. This was as challenging as any fishing trip.

The committee, with the aid of Bord Failte, had spruced up the hamlet but the unsettled weather meant that anxious helpers were constantly tweaking the bunting and trying to keep the chairs on the platform dry.

There was a lot happening but in a very short time I had sussed that the atmosphere between the Americans and the Irish was really poisonous. I was told that the Secret Service was especially dismissive of the gardai, who, for their part, had retaliated with the line: "Well, we've never lost one of ours."

This stung because Reagan was still recovering from wounds received in 1981 when a would-be assassin had fired at him as the Secret Service were looking the wrong way.

Motorcade

A motorcade of large American vehicles was parked about 50 yards up from the square. One of the big, black vehicles was a mobile operating theatre, one of two flown in on huge transport planes as the visit to Ireland began.

The trip to the west of the country had not gone well. Reagan had been snubbed by the hierarchy and, for reasons that were never clear, a group of Irish entertainers, including Phil Coulter, had been refused admission to the hotel, despite the fact that they had been booked.

Back in Ballyporeen a Bord Failte official had carefully laid an immaculate green carpet on the platform. It was perfect, not a crease or a wrinkle. He stood back to admire his work when a shrill American voice roared: "Okay, get that carpet up again, we have to put down steel plates."

"Why didn't you tell me that before I put the carpet down?" came the plaintiff enquiry. The small woman confronting the abject official curled her lip and replied: "Because you didn't need to know."

Earlier, I was told, someone had welded closed all the shores and man-hole covers in the town "for security reasons".

Crash barriers had created an empty space in front of the platform. Camera crews had established camps around the square and photographers were patrolling in search of good sight lines.

By midday the town was full of citizens and their elected representatives, gardai, Secret Service personnel and the world's press. At some point Peter Barry, the then minister for Foreign Affairs, arrived with his wife.

The chairman of Bord Failte was the hotelier P.V. Doyle. He was buzzing as he tried to figure out how he could get Reagan to unveil a plaque by way of opening the tourist information centre. Bands played. Ronald was late. I waffled.

The President and Nancy Reagan arrived and went to look at the parish register. The band played a bit more, I joked and waffled on, then we saw him in the distance up the street.

At least we saw a group of men in identical raincoats moving through the crowd lining the road -- there seemed to be some sort of incident, the raincoats suddenly surrounded one other raincoat, leaving the small woman (Nancy) isolated briefly.

It was clear that the Secret Service's priority was "the boss". I was told later that some headcase had tried to shake hands with the President with a piece of broken glass concealed in his hand. I couldn't get the story confirmed.

From my vantage point on the platform I could see the progress of the party through the crowd and the approach road to the square, so I was giving the congregation a running commentary, pointing out what landmarks I had recced earlier.

As I mentioned some point of interest I could see, Reagan turned to look at it and I realised that he too was listening to the Tannoy. I tried something. "In a few moments," I announced, "the President will turn and join the chairman of Bord Failte on the other side of the street to open the tourist information centre."

Right on cue the President turned, P.V. Doyle came pushing forward, and together they unveiled the brass plate on the office wall. For those few moments I had controlled the leader of the free world. Well, influenced him anyway.

As Reagan made his way to the platform I got a huge thumbs up from P.V..

I had been given two copies of Reagan's speech, one to sit on the lectern and one as a spare in case the wind took the first one.

Turkey

Needless to say, I had read it. It was even worse than the one I had been offered; full of references to obscure Edwardian novelists mixed with stage Oirishisms. Dear me. While Reagan and Nancy took their seats on the platform it began to rain. An official arrived with others to hold umbrellas over the VIPs but were waved away by the two hatchet-faced men (in identical rain coats, of course) who stood behind the President, arms folded, right hands under their coats, watching the crowd and the rooftops.

An umbrella might spoil their aim. The President got wet.

During the official words of welcome the sun came up over the rooftops and the old actor's head came up to find his key light and iron out any creases under his chin.

I introduced him. He beamed and moved forward to rapturous applause. But that speech. Thirty seconds into his script he knew it was a turkey and carefully folded the cards. He then delivered an off-the-cuff speech that was bang on target; warm, funny and well-judged.

This wasn't anything like the official script and it worked very well indeed. Reagan knew it. The crowd loved him. It was the high point of his Irish visit. He was still healing from the bullet wounds he'd received from that assassination attempt and Nancy got anxious when she saw a heavy bronze plate with the Reagan coat of arms on it. A huge weighty medallion.

"Ronnie can't hold that," she told me, so I made sure that he only had to rest his hands on it. I took the weight.

Reagan also liked the jokes and the atmosphere in Balyporeen. I'm not sure how Peter Barry liked it. He never cracked a smile for two hours -- but the Americans loved it.

After he left the platform the President went into the Ronald Reagan Lounge for a pint. An aide, or maybe a Secret Service man, was sent out with a message for me: "Tell Bob Hope he did a great job, thanks."

That was a compliment, I think.

I had lobbied, through a US official, for the release of a priest held by the Marcos regime in the Philippines. He promised to see what he could do. That was my only serious engagement with the Americans. Now it was over. If we hurried we'd get to Ballymote in time.

The reaction to the Reagan visit was interesting. Two US TV companies wanted to explore "broadcast opportunities" with me but I was a young married man with a very young family and declined.

I'd be lying if I said I never wondered 'what if?'

Most of my colleagues were supportive but one newsroom female, I was told, roared at the TV screen: "The bloody man is a disgrace to his profession."

I believe she meant me, not Reagan, and a very senior manager looked at me sorrowfully and said: "You've made a huge mistake."

There were those who made unfounded political judgements of me but, as I said, I was just a working journalist in the newsroom of RTE.

One little footnote, one of the memorable moments... When Reagan was stepping up to the platform the happy crowd surged forward to fill in the small space in front of the stage. That little Secret Service woman was furious.

She poked a very tall senior garda in the navel and shouted up at him: "Get your guys to clear this square, NOW!"

He looked at her benignly and smiled. "I tell you what sweetheart," he said, "you've done such a great job all week, clear the f***ing square yourself."

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