Why does John Fitzgerald Kennedy still matter so much to us? While the rest of the world has to debate his political legacy or listen to his old mistresses, we have no mixed feelings about him.
In Wexford this coming month there will be ceremonies commemorating his four-day trip here. Several members of the Kennedy family, including guests of honour Caroline Kennedy, Kennedy's daughter, and Jean Kennedy, his sister, are expected in Wexford for what will be the 50th anniversary of JFK's historic visit. Musicians, writers, actors and politicians will remember his passing and wake that brief, shining moment when there was an Irishman in the White House. The 'Murphia' (Jackie O's mischievous shorthand for 'Irish mafia') was running the world. Never before, and never since, has our yearning for friends in high places been scratched quite as deeply as it was with Kennedy. A half a century later, we have to invent paperwork and ransack the place for eighth cousins, but in JFK we had one of our own leading the free world. Plugged firmly into the Vatican and the White House, our little island seemed like the font of all power.
On November 22, 1963, the plug was pulled on the most important link. It is a date remembered by every Irish person of a certain age. It was late in the day here as the first news reports filtered through from America. JFK had been shot dead in Dallas. Word spread quickly and as the first grainy images were broadcast on RTE, the country was rapt watching pictures of Jackie Kennedy, her suit spattered with blood. A report in the Irish Press vividly painted the picture: "Cinemas, theatres and all places of entertainment rapidly emptied as the chilling facts of his death spread like wildfire among an unbelieving and bewildered populace. The rain-washed streets of Dublin were filled with hurrying people who made their way to the Pro-Cathedral and other churches to pray."
In their telegrams of sympathy both the Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, and the President, Eamon De Valera, made reference to the great affection in which Kennedy was held in Ireland but for once these were not political platitudes. In those dazed hours after Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as his replacement on Air Force One, it became clear that the Kennedys' feelings for Ireland were genuine. The honour guard at Kennedy's funeral was to be the 37th Cadet Class of the Irish Army. Word of Jackie's wishes filtered through to the Curragh late on Saturday night, November 23. The story was sweeping the world and the cadets were told that they were going to be in "the eye of the storm". During his life Kennedy had been so impressed by them that he requested a film of them in action, so that it could be shown to US forces. In a subsequent TG4 documentary, Colonel William Nott remembered the day of the funeral in Arlington, Virginia: "We were standing beside the grave and I could see right down into it. We stood in position for more than two hours and then I remember hearing the muffled drums coming nearer and nearer. I remember vividly seeing the Kennedy family and the funeral cortege." Lieutenant Frank Colclough gave the order and 26 Irish cadets went through a silent funeral drill with their old ceremonial Lee Enfield rifles as world media and dignitaries from 90 countries looked on. Earlier, JFK Jr, then a little boy, had given his father's coffin the famous salute.
It was hard to believe that just a few months beforehand, Kennedy had been sitting in what must have seemed like the safest place in the world – his forefather's home in Dunganstown, Co Wexford. One can only imagine the flurries of preparation that preceded the American president's arrival in the little yard, which his great-grandfather had left in 1847. Kennedy had in fact been to Wexford once before, but that was 16 years before, when he was a 'lowly' congressman. In preparation for this latest visit, floors were scrubbed and bunting was hung up. Concrete was poured into the muck-filled front yard and indoor plumbing was installed for the first time in the house. But what to serve a man who was like a pope and a film star all in one? In the end, Kennedy's cousin, Mary Ryan, who despite her "quaint matriarch" exterior had numerous IRA connections, opted to serve smoked salmon sandwiches and home-made brown bread. She welcomed JFK with a kiss on the cheek and her hands trembled as she poured the tea. Kennedy, ever the politician, broke with protocol to shake the hands of the neighbours who had come in to help. Many remarked on the family resemblance between Mary Ryan and her daughters, Mary Ann and Josie, and the president and his sisters, Jean and Eunice, who had accompanied him on the trip. Homespun handsomeness had crossed the Atlantic, everyone politely agreed.
To the dismay of many present, the most important Kennedy woman of all was not there: Jackie Kennedy had not made this trip to Ireland – she was pregnant with their son Patrick (who would die two days after his birth later in the year).
JFK had long grown accustomed to travelling (and carrying on) without her. In New Ross, he held the audience in the palm of his hand, telling them: "When my great-grandfather left here to become a cooper in East Boston, he carried nothing with him except two things – a strong religious faith and a strong desire for liberty. I am glad to say that all of his grandchildren have valued that inheritance." The crowd, Ryan Tubridy would note in his book about JFK's visit, were "pink with excitement, hanging on his every word". Hundreds of well-wishers cheered and waved flags on his arrival at Wexford town and a choir of 300 boys greeted him singing The Boys of Wexford, a ballad about an insurrection in 1798. JFK left his bodyguards to join them in the second chorus, prompting one American photographer to burst into tears.
While Obama didn't even give us a one-night-stand during his headspinning flyby two years ago, Kennedy's visit seemed truly to be a honeymoon and lasted several days. The trip was originally conceived as part of his 1963 tour of Europe during which the president would shore up some of America's geo-political interests. It was on this tour that he gave one of his most celebrated speeches, telling West Germans: "Ich bin ein Berliner." His desire to go to Ireland was met with dismay in the US State Department, however. "You've got all the Irish votes in this country that you'll ever get," Kennedy aide Kenny O'Donnell objected. "If you go to Ireland, people will say it's just a pleasure trip." To which Kennedy quipped: "That's exactly what I want."
The arrival of Air Force One at Dublin on June 26 signalled the beginning of a trip that would be remembered for generations.
Within minutes of the plane touching down, Kennedy stepped out to cheers from well-wishers who had gathered on the terminal's balcony.
Grainy newsreel from the time shows a crowd of around 250,000 people lining O'Connell Street as the presidential cavalcade wound its way through the city centre. Angier Biddle Duke, the White House Chief of Protocol and the only member of Kennedy's team who (in the words of the president) "didn't have a drop of Irish blood", remembered the arrival: "He rode in to town with President de Valera from the airport, and I rode behind with the prime minister (Sean Lemass) – and Kennedy was so proud of the turnout and really so delighted to see his 'countrymen.' After the Berlin hordes, of course, it just didn't compare – as a matter of fact, it would be unfair to compare the hysterical passion of the Berlin multitudes to the jolly, friendly, hand-waving crowds on the streets of Dublin."
Of course, others saw the Berlin trip merely as a warm-up for Dublin. Kennedy was a young president coming to a young country that loved him. Sheila Van Wulfften Palthe, then a teenager, remembered the visit: "Secondary schools had closed for the holidays, so any 14-year-old who knew that Kennedy was the most interesting member of the triumvirate, the others being Padraig Pearse and the pope, with the Holy Ghost hovering only a little distance above them, had to watch every single bit of every single TV programme on Kennedy's visit to Ireland."
She told Irish America magazine: "There he was, the vibrant leader of the anti-communists and Catholic Irish all over the world, the embodiment of all that was good, protector of the downtrodden, especially us. I saw shining lights reflected in the eyes of the lucky ones who could see him in person. The Dubliners were swish; the Wexford cousins looked just like us. We, the Irish, had finally taken our rightful place among the nations of the Earth. Elevation to an exalted state of being was almost within our reach. Everywhere Kennedy went he was swooned over by women. In Redmond Place, Wexford, he was even mobbed by a crowd of Catholic nuns. At the time, of course, little was known about his philandering ways."
Apart from lust, the welcome Kennedy received from the public was tied up with our national self-esteem. We were still a poor little nation with bad haircuts and little worth exporting. In 1963, there were many still alive who remembered the 'no dogs, no Irish' signs that greeted many of the emigrants from this country to America.
Although he had in fact benefited from a wealth of family connections in his inexorable rise through American politics, Kennedy liked to tap into this idea of himself as the embodiment of the Celtic underdog. In Wexford, he referenced the fact that he was the first Irish Catholic to ascend to the highest office in the US: "When my great-grandfather came to America and my grandfather was growing up, the Irish Americans had a song about the familiar sign which went: 'No Irish Need Apply'." He continued: "In 1960, the American people took the sign down from the last place it was still hanging – the door of the White House." In his address to the Dail, Kennedy played up to Irish notions of importance on the world stage, by quoting (of all people) David Lloyd George: "All the world owes much to the little 'five feet high' nations. The greatest art of the world was the work of little nations. The most enduring literature of the world came from little nations. The heroic deeds that thrill humanity through generations were the deeds of little nations fighting for their freedom. And, oh, yes, the salvation of mankind came through a little nation."
Quoting a snatch of song he heard in Wexford, Kennedy added that the oppressed peoples he had seen in Berlin should do well to remember "The boys of Wexford, who fought with heart and hand, to burst in twain the galling chain and free our native land".
It was rather grandiosely claimed that Kennedy's speech had lain to rest the ghost of the Great Famine, but it didn't go over well with everyone. During the course of the speech he referred to Lord Edward Fitzgerald, whose father, the Duke Of Leinster, had built Leinster House in the 18th Century. Kennedy mentioned that Lord Edward had written a letter to his mother in which he had noted, "Leinster House does not inspire the brightest ideas." In his book on Kennedy's visit, Tubridy wrote that JFK had meant this as a joke, a light-hearted moment in his half-hour speech to the Dail. But Dev didn't appreciate it and later gave the American president an unlikely dressing down and had the gag expunged from the record.
"I'll be back in the springtime" were Kennedy's final words to the crowd before he boarded Air Force One at the end of his trip. The desire to return was genuine, but the words were soon given a poignant significance. In the years that would follow, the admiration for Kennedy's legacy and the nostalgia for the post-war optimism he evoked only grew. The lore of 'Camelot' (the byword for the Kennedy 'court') and the fascination with his debauched personal life became the subject of numerous books. The Kennedy clan eased into their roles as American royals and in time would move away from 'hard' politics into campaigning, philanthropy and ambassadorial roles. Jackie, who would go on to marry Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis, visited here again in 1967 when she was Eamon De Valera's guest.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who accompanied her brother on the 1963 trip to Ireland, was one of the founders of the Special Olympics while Jean Kennedy Smith (as she became), who was also on the trip, eventually became the US ambassador to this country between 1993-1998. The 'curse' of the Kennedys would be an oft-discussed topic over the years as several members of the dynasty would meet untimely deaths in the aftermath of JFK's demise, including brother Bobby and JFK's son John.
Broadcaster Anne Doyle, Colm Toibin, Michael Flatley and George Hook will be among the well-known locals who will take to the stage on June 22 at the New Ross Quayside to commemorate the 'Irish' president's visit. Tenor Michael Londra will perform a song he has written for the event with Grammy Award winning songwriter, Marcus Hummon. Judy Collins, who performed for both Kennedy and Bill Clinton, will also sing at the event. The Kennedy sisters are to light an "emigrant flame" in honour of their brother and Enda Kenny will also be on hand to make a speech and name a park after JFK. Other events will take place throughout the year and on November 22 – the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death – a special Mass will be given in New Ross in his memory.
The Rosary beads which were in JFK's pocket when he was shot in Dallas were later given by Jackie to his extended family in Wexford and from June will be seen at the Museum and Visitors Centre that stands at Mary Ryan's farm in Dunganstown.
The centre, which will be known as The Kennedy Homestead, will open next month. And the food? It has to be smoked salmon sandwiches and home-made brown bread. Only the best for 'Jack.'
For more information on the events surrounding the anniversary of JFK's visit to Ireland please visit www.jfk50ireland.com