Monday 23 October 2017

Review: JFK in Ireland: Four Days That Changed a President by Ryan Tubridy

HarperCollins, €23.40

Hilary A White

THE announcement that Ryan Tubridy was penning a book about John F Kennedy's 1963 state visit to Ireland wasn't surprising.

The broadcaster is well known for his obsession with US culture, politics and glamour -- the TV series Mad Men may as well be his dreamscape -- all of which comes to a head in this highly readable and charmingly illustrated account of "four days that changed a president".

Before allowing his detractors (a vocal community, it would appear) to bark "hyperbole", the author begins proceedings with a reprint of a letter sent by Jackie Kennedy to then Aras inhabitant Eamon de Valera, thanking him for attending her husband's funeral and being a fine host five months previously.

In the handwritten three-and-half pages, she speaks of a trip that "meant more to him than any other in his life" and of his nightly phone calls to recount all that had happened each day.

The prologue and opening four chapters see Tubridy fitting his cornerstones -- the ancestry, emigration and gradual rise to prominence of the Kennedys -- and bringing everyone up to speed on life on both sides of the Atlantic.

We are reminded of John F's significance as both an Irish and a Catholic.

Obama, whom the planet was swooning over during Tubridy's research phase, is mentioned in the epilogue, and it is not a glib comparison either -- both changed the political landscape by conquering racially sceptical electorates while imbuing the nation with a sense of hope and possibility.

The fledgling Republic of Ireland, a mere 14 years old at the time, desperately needed some of that. Emigration and unemployment defined the economy, and culturally Ireland was slowly shuffling free of the Church's stony repression and censorship.

De Valera, meanwhile, was busy "looking over his shoulder" at issues of residual British influence.

Although from a long line of Fianna Fail-ers, Tubridy is right to mention the significance of Sean Lemass in initiating our emergence into modernity as Minister for Industry and Commerce and subsequently Taoiseach. This debriefing serves as a refresher course for the Irish reader, but alongside some moments of outright spoonfeeding --we're told what a "taoiseach" and a "Dail" are -- it suggests that Tubridy and HarperCollins have the Stateside market in mind too.

If anything can fully translate the euphoria engulfing this first official visit by a head of state, it is the extensive and regularly beautiful archive photography that adorns the pages. During a visit to the ancestral home in Dunganstown, Co Wexford, we see cousin Mary Ryan unself-consciously kissing the cheek of the most powerful man on the planet.

The streets of Dublin, Cork and Galway are lined with feverish delight, particularly visible among the nation's womenfolk. Bodies vie for a good vantage point over Cork's Brian Boru Bridge, while secret servicemen in pale overcoats tensely shadow the grinning president. If you get misty watching Reeling in the Years, expect the same effect here.

Readers soon warm to Tubridy's prose. His snappy, swaggering RTE voice ("Rock star? President? Irish? He had it all ... ") is certainly there, but you come to ignore it before long, as a natural feel for non-fiction becomes noticeable. A lover of literature, he understands the importance of flow. Chapters are concise and quickly digested. As a writer, he doesn't pretend to be anything he's not, and instead he just does the simple things competently -- delivering a colourful account, opening discussions where necessary and depicting historical events for readers of today.

Combined with the strong visual content, JFK In Ireland becomes a robust tome to a turning point of sorts in Irish culture. It is a potent sentiment that is quietly built beneath the detail -- that of a quiet island, outside the glow of Cold War embers, being included in the issues of the times by an other-worldly Adonis who saw our worth and potential.

On June 29, Kennedy departed the land of his forbears after a whirlwind tour that had seen him charm and be charmed, get mobbed at an Aras an Uachtarain reception and address the Dail.

While unwilling to rock the boat by addressing Partition, he had thrust a sense of international duty on us, encouraging Ireland to play its part in world peace. Leaving with him was de Valera's isolationist paradigm, and a national feeling of inferiority and self-doubt. That's the author's take on things anyway.

Before repeating himself slightly about JFK's legacy in an epilogue, Tubridy hits us with a sorrowful chapter on the young leader's death. While Ireland weeps back home, his funeral is attended by the Irish Cadets who had so impressed him that June, and Dev, a man who had evaded execution the year before Kennedy's birth.

History lessons and documentaries will probably see the Irish reader up on these facts, but they'll bear new weight this time around.

Sunday Independent

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