Thursday 21 September 2017

Push! Shove! Heave!

It was supposed to be a gentle affair. But it soon got a little wild at the Aras garden party, writes David McCullagh

JFK struggles to stay upright as party guests surge around him. Inset: An invite for the party
JFK struggles to stay upright as party guests surge around him. Inset: An invite for the party
How the Irish Independent reported the crush the following day

David McCullagh

What better way to greet a distinguished guest than with a garden party? As the great and good of Irish society sit around the rolling lawns of Aras an Uachtarain under blue summer skies, drinking tea and eating strawberries, the President of the United States could wander from group to group, shaking hands and chatting, accompanied by his host, the President of Ireland. Pleasant, relaxed, informal. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot, actually, as bad weather and worse behaviour combined to create an embarrassing fiasco.

The following day's Irish Independent captured the scene: "President mobbed at party", as over-exuberant guests "crowded into an uncontrollable mass" in their efforts to shake the Presidential hand. Another paper reported "toes trampled and hats crumpled in the big push".

The problems began with the weather – a persistent drizzle dampened the mood and ruined some of the elegant outfits. To avoid the rain, the chairs that had been left scattered around the lawn remained upturned, ready to trip unwary feet.

As most of the almost 2,000 guests congregated soggily on the law, the more important of them were inside Aras an Uachtarain being introduced to President Kennedy by his host, President Eamon de Valera.

When the two men emerged from the Aras to greet the rest, the real trouble began.

Eager guests pushed forward in an effort to shake Kennedy's hand, as his security detail and the staff of the Aras tried to clear a path for him and de Valera.

Reporters noted that the female guests were the most determined to get near Kennedy. In the crush, guests fell over the chairs on the lawn, high heels sank into the turf, and extravagant party hats were crushed.

It wasn't just the female guests whose outfits were in danger – a bishop had his cape ripped, and was nearly dragged to the ground, by a man trying to get out of the way of the surging crowd.

President De Valera's appeal to the crowd to "move back, move back, please", went unheeded, and Kennedy's security detail swung into action, surrounding their man and escorting him back towards the Aras.

Unfortunately, his host, the 80-year-old De Valera, was left outside the circle, and was in danger of being trampled until Garda Commissioner Daniel Costigan managed to rescue him. By this time the disappointed mob could only see the back of Kennedy's head, so the Minister for External Affairs, Frank Aiken, called out to him: "Turn around, Jack, turn around". He did so, and smiled, but in the crush couldn't even raise his arm to wave. Then he was gone, back inside the Aras.

As most of the crowd waited outside the main door of the Aras, Kennedy and De Valera slipped out a side door for a tree-planting ceremony. A few reporters managed to squeeze through the security cordon to record the President's words of wisdom.

After putting a shovel of earth over the California Redwood he was planting, Kennedy handed the shovel to groundsman Paddy Buggy, saying: "Now let's see the expert do it"; when De Valera energetically dug in to plant his own tree, JFK remarked: "You are making me look awfully bad, Mr President". (Poignantly, the tree planted by Kennedy didn't survive.)

On the way back inside, Kennedy insisted on trying to shake hands again. But once it was realised the star of the show was in the open again, the mob descended. The official party tried to beat a retreat through French windows opening onto the terrace; but in another comic touch to the farce, they were found to be locked. Kennedy reportedly joined in the general laughter, as once again the security men had to push a path through the crowd.

Under the portico, the two Presidents turned to the crowd, and De Valera said his American guest was sorry he couldn't shake everyone's hand, but it was quite impossible. Fittingly, given the chaos of the day, the rest of his words were drowned out by the Army No 1 Band.

The British Press, predictably, made the most of the embarrassing scenes. The 'Daily Express' compared the garden party to a rugby scrum, as guests, dressed in the 'mothball eaten togs of Victorian days' and 'comic hats', engaged in a free-for-all.

The Irish people were left scratching their heads as to how the supposed great and good of Irish society could misbehave so badly. However, it wasn't all bad news. As the 'Irish Press' reported: "The strawberries were lovely, even if the weather wasn't".

The author is a political reporter for RTE

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