'He was only gorgeous, I want to tell you...'
As the Galway Mayor's wife, Breda Ryan had a ringside seat for JFK's visit – and she loved every minute of it, she tells Anita Guidera
Breda Ryan, whose husband Paddy was the mayor of Galway, had met President Kennedy several times earlier in the week before he finally made it to the Maiden City.
The 80-year-old widow describes the entire occasion as "an unforgettable time".
"We had only just got television then. Nobody had ever seen anything like the excitement, not just in Galway but in the whole of the country.
"This was somebody who was a dashing Camelot."
The glamorous mother of five – a sixth child was born later – who was compared more than once by the media to Jacqueline Kennedy during the visit, had travelled with her husband to Dublin the previous Wednesday to a garden party in the Aras.
Later that day in Iveagh House, she was bowled over by the handsome appearance of the leader of the Free World.
"He was dressed in white tie and tails and he was only gorgeous, I want to tell you. He had a good figure and he was tall and tanned," she said.
On the day he came to Galway, Breda travelled to Eyre Square, taking her place with the other dignitaries while Paddy went to Salthill to formally welcome the president to the city.
"We live on College Road and when the car was about to travel past our house my mother-in-law, Catherine, was standing outside our house with our five children waving.
"Paddy said to him: 'I'd like very much if you'd wave to my mother. She'll be at the next gate.' I had the gate all decorated with flowers and flags and bunting and the next thing was he just hopped out of the car and went over and shook her hand."
He even autographed a copy of an old American history book that Mrs Ryan was holding in her hand.
"You couldn't watch him. The security men didn't know what he was going to do. It was just open touring and Paddy was with him and it was just marvellous.
"All the people on the street ran up to greet him and were saying 'God bless you Mr Kennedy' and all that stuff. I believe it was very exciting," she said.
In Eyre Square where 600 gardai had taken up duty from early morning, the excitement was at fever pitch. An estimated 100,000 people had assembled for a glimpse of the president and to hear his speech.
But Breda's mayor husband raised more than a few eyebrows when he rose to address the president, entirely in the Irish language.
"It was on request from the president, Mr De Valera and the chairman of the Seanad, Mr Liam O'Buachalla, that Paddy would address him in the Irish language in Galway.
"Some people were very approving and some people said 'what's he saying?' but the idea was, since this was the first time that Ireland was shown in celebratory mood to the world that it had to be seen we had a culture of our own and language of our own.
"A lot of the people who emigrated couldn't even speak English. Irish was spoken widely and Paddy had been educated through Irish," she said.
Paddy, who was also a member of the Chamber of Commerce, presented the president with a silver gilt casket made by Faller's Jewellers that contained his Freedom of Galway city scroll.
President Kennedy was also presented with a wrought silver replica of the Great Mace of Galway mounted on Connemara marble and made by Messrs T Dillon as a paperweight for his desk in the White House.
After the formalities, Breda recalled how the crowd "nearly pulled him apart" as President Kennedy got into his car to return to Salthill.
She travelled out to Salthill with the entourage, later learning that the president had asked Paddy what did people do in Salthill. When Paddy replied that it was a seaside resort and people swam, the president remarked: "They sure are rugged."
At the same sportsground where he had landed just hours earlier, she can remember JFK stretching his hands down to the people that surrounded the helicopter in a final goodbye.
As the helicopter rose into the clouds, she recalls a sense of loneliness and emptiness in its wake.
"It was like saying goodbye to somebody very cherished. I remember people waving and waving until you could see the chopper no more in the clouds," she said.
Breda went straight home with Paddy to watch the remainder of the visit on television. It was as though they were still not ready to let him go.