Monday 19 February 2018

A country brought to its knees

The sense of euphoria at JFK's visit was swept away just months later by his killing, writes John Meagher

A man kneels in respect at a funeral Mass for the late John F Kennedy
A man kneels in respect at a funeral Mass for the late John F Kennedy
How the Irish Independent reported the tragedy in the days following JFK's death
John Meagher

John Meagher

It was standing room only in the Co Wexford church as Fr Jackie Power tried to comfort the mourners. November 1963 and the scene was St Michael's Parish Church, New Ross, Co Wexford, and a special Mass to mourn the assassination of John F Kennedy.

"It was like losing one of our own," says Victor Furness, who remembers it as if it were yesterday.

Victor was 13 years old when the US president died. Now a Fine Gael councillor, he says: "And because there had been such celebrations when he visited New Ross just four months previously, the pain of his death was even greater.

"Everyone was crying – I was crying. The whole country ground to a halt."

As a member of the local children's choir, Victor had got to meet Kennedy that summer. "It was like seeing Elvis. He had been a photograph on our wall next to the Pope and here he was in the flesh. The fact that he had been killed was devastating, especially as he was such a young man with a young family."

Victor was in the family house on Mary Street when the news broke. "And then Charles Mitchell came on the television to say he had been assassinated. It was the first time I'd ever heard the word and I asked my mother what it meant, but she shushed me. Her face had gone white. She couldn't believe it. Nobody could."

 

24 November 1964 - Mike Burns reports for RTÉ News from the farmyard in Dunganstown, Co Wexford, where President Kennedy had taken tea with his Irish relatives

Footage courtesy of the RTE Archives

 

Wexford woman Statia O'Leary was 26 at the time of Kennedy's death and recalls the great sense of loss that befell the country.

"It had come so soon after his visit to Ireland and there was a feeling of disbelief and shock that it could be happening.

"The memory that has stayed with me is the sight of the little boy saluting his coffin on the black-and-white television footage of the funeral. Nowadays, we're used to seeing major world events on television, but it was a very different story in 1963. It was all anyone could talk about."

The grief was felt most acutely in Wexford, the county of his ancestors, but the entire country experienced a sense of loss that's rarely been seen before or since and it went into the sort of shut-down that would normally have been reserved for the deaths of Irish presidents up to that point.

Taoiseach Seán Lemass summed up the mood of the nation in a Dáil address: "We, each of us, have a deep sense of personal loss, and in every Irish church and home the prayers of our people are being offered for his eternal salvation, as they would be for a close and dear relative."

The Irish Independent noted: "Churches everywhere were crowded all morning and again last evening as hundreds of thousands of men, women and children prayed and mourned for the American leader whom they regarded as one of their own. Church bells tolled, Irish and American flags flew at half mast and the nation's commercial life came to a standstill for hours."

Shops, factories, schools, colleges, courts, cinemas, offices, cafes, restaurants, the Dublin Stock Exchange and the Abbey Theatre all closed as a mark of respect.

Workers and students went to churches in groups that formed little processions of mourning through cities and towns. Dublin dockers marched from the North Wall to a special Mass in the Church of St Laurence O'Toole, while the traders of Moore Street remembered him at a Mass at the nearby Pro Cathedral.

An Army band led a military parade in honour of the dead president to a Requiem Mass in the Military Church of the Sacred Heart, Arbour Hill, where only months previously Kennedy had stood at the graveside of the 1916 leaders in the most moving ceremony of his visit.

Hundreds of gardaí, who had provided escorts during his visit, marched to a Requiem Mass at Mount Argus Church, where they paid a final salute to his memory.

Although Kennedy was the first, and to date, only Catholic president of the United States, all denominations paid their respects to him. The Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Simms, presided at a commemorative service in St Patrick's Cathedral while the Chief Rabbi, Dr Cohen, gave a commemorative address at a Jewish service in Dublin's Adelaide Road Synagogue.

RTé devoted most of its schedule to a special film record of the funeral – which was by far the most watch programme on the fledgling broadcaster up to that point.

A large swathe of the public outpouring of sorrow was directed toward Kennedy's young widow, Jacqueline, who had thrilled the country with her style and glamour.

In the first two months after his death, the White House received an estimated 800,000 letters of condolences from around the world. Of that huge amount of post, at least 10,000 were sent from Irish people.

Remarkably, the White House had responded to almost everyone by the summer of 1964. Among those who received a note of thanks from Washington was Leo Kearns, a schoolteacher from Sooey, Co Sligo, and his wife, Phil – now both deceased. The signature of Jacqueline Kennedy could be clearly made out above the postage stamp.

"It meant an awful lot to them and it was kept in a safe place," says their daughter, Martha. "I remember they also had a copy of Life magazine from November 1963 which featured photos of the funeral. That too was minded carefully and wrapped in tissue paper."

For Victor Furness, the grief he felt at Kennedy's death was tempered by the memory of that New Ross visit in 1963. "I don't think Ireland had seen anything like it before," he says. "It lit the whole place up – and now, when I think back to that year, it's the happy days that I like to remember rather than the heartbreak."

Irish Independent

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