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Friday 29 August 2014

American connections

Jim Hayes

Published 21/05/2013 | 05:42

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My memories of the one grandparent who hadn't passed away before I was born are few and far between. I do remember this kind lady pressing a coin into my hand on one visit to her home in Parnell Street, and imparting a pearl of wisdom on another. 'Don't judge a book by its cover,' she said.

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As a toddler I didn't really understand that she wasn't referring to a book at all, but teaching an early lesson that has in fact served me well down the years. That said, it is also an incredibly useful tip to remember when perusing the shelves of the local library or bookstore.

Liam Gaul's 'Wexford: The American Connection' is a case in point. It's A4 landscape format, with a photoshopped cover of jumbled images, shouts coffee table, but inside there's much substance across 84 pages.

Gaul loves detail and embellishes his accounts of Wexford's past with some golden nuggets.

Did you know, for instance, that in 1956, discussion took place over which direction the new statue of John Barry should face: towards the town or to the sea? In the end it was decided that he should gaze seawards, a wise decision given that had it gone the other way, the great man who commanded fleets would today find himself staring at a shuttered-up vacant shop.

'Wexford: The American Connection' arrives in time for two important anniversaries. It's exactly 200 years since Commodore John Barry was first given the moniker 'Father of the American Navy' in a literary journal. The Wexford man who had enjoyed a fine career as a commanding officer in the early days of the American navy had died ten years earlier at the age of 58.

June also marks the 50th anniversary of the visit of the charismatic President John F Kennedy to his ancestral home, on Thursday, June 27, 1963. Liam Gaul points out that 'the visit of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy has gone down in history as one of the most memorable events ever to take place in Wexford'. This is all the more remarkable when you consider JFK only spent a brief few hours on Wexford soil.

The author records that the man given the honour of welcoming the President, and driving in state with him through the town, was new Mayor Thomas F. Byrne. The Labour alderman, who had unsuccessfully contested the Mayoral elections of 1960, 1961 and 1962, had been elevated to the position only three days before. Byrne had also been Chairman of the County Council up until three days prior to the visit, and would have had the rare distinction of acting in a dual capacity on the day if moves to postpone the election of a new chairman on June 24 had succeeded. In the event, the election went ahead and J.J. Bowe was voted chairman.

The book explores two other American connections: the siting of a United States Naval Air Station in Wexford in the final months of the Great War in 1918, and the visit of military hero, General Dwight Eisenhower to Wexford in August 1962, to lay a wreath at the Barry memorial.

One of five 'flying boat' stations built in Ireland to combat the havoc being caused by prowling German U-boats, the Wexford base in Ferrybank had a short life. It was operational from September 18 to the end of the war on November 11, but in that time the five seaplanes at the base made 98 flights and sunk a number of U boats. Over 400 officers and men were stationed in Ferrybank and it was a major boost to the local economy.

According to the author, the Americans did not spend all their time working. 'Relations between tthe visitors and the townspeople were excellent and many friendships grew and also marriages from the arrival of the first naval personnel to their departue in late November and early the following year.'

Local pigeon fanciers will be impressed that the seaplanes carried the birds as a means of contact if wireless transmissions failed. Gaul notes that 'the special value of the carrier pigeons and the results of their careful training were proven to be invaluable to the whole operation'.

The American officers lived in the splendour of Ely House and the book includes a picture of the building in all its glory. Unfortunately this important piece of Wexford heritage was largely demolished in the seventies to make way for an ugly slab of architecture from the period.

If the text is illuminating, the photographs are striking, particularly the images of JFK's visit which make full use of the landscape format. Picked from the extensive archive of the late Denis O'Connor, long time photographer with the Wexford People, they capture in minute detail a day in the life of Wexford that will never be forgotten.

'Wexford: The American Connection' is published by Wexford Borough Council and topped and tailed with messages from current mayor Jim Allen who recalls sitting on his father's shoulders at Crescent Quay in 1963 to catch a glimpse of the American President. Further council input is limited to a rather incongruous page with pictures of every mayor from 1957 to 2012.

The real interest is in the careful research of Liam Gaul and his ample use of pictures and illustrations to shine a beacon on events and people who stand out in a fascinating history of Wexford-U.S. relations.

Wexford People

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