Band of brothers
On Monday week, 11 former Irish soldiers will gather at a grave that they first stood beside exactly 50 years before. They will travel thousands of miles to Arlington Cemetery, near Washington DC, to lay a wreath at the grave of John F Kennedy – but this will not be the first time they have honoured him. For half a century ago, these men were part of the guard of honour of 26 Irish Army cadets who performed an intricate drill at JFK's funeral to salute the slain American president.
The Funeral Drill had been performed in front of Kennedy at a ceremony at Arbour Hill Cemetery during the US president's much-feted visit to Ireland in June 1963. So impressed was Kennedy by the precision of the cadet guard of honour, that on his return to the States, the White House requested footage of the drill. None was available. By this time the cadets had graduated, so the following cadet class – the 37th – was ordered to learn the drill and recreate it for the cameras.
And even an indirect connection to the photogenic Irish-American statesman sent a frisson of excitement through the cadet class. "Everybody in Ireland at the time would probably have regarded him as much as our president as the Americans did . . . he really was a big deal here," says former cadet Lieutenant-Colonel, Rtd Peter McMahon.
The cadets duly committed the complex drill to film, which was sent to Kennedy, and then went back to their training. "We thought no more about it," says Colonel Richard Heaslip, Rtd, another former member of the 37th cadet class, and the father of Leinster and Ireland rugby star Jamie Heaslip.
But a tragedy in Dallas, Texas, just a few months later would ensure that this would not be the end of the Irish cadets' involvement with President Kennedy.
On November 23, 1963, the day after Kennedy's assassination, the Irish government received a special request from the US ambassador.
The president's widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, had personally requested that a "contingent of the Irish Army fly to Washington to participate in the funeral ceremonies". The head of the Officer Cadet School in the Curragh was told to ready 26 of the 40-strong 37th class to travel the next day, on the same plane as President Eamon de Valera.
The call went out and on Sunday, the cadets flew out to Washington DC. They were just 19 or 20, and for most, this was their first time outside Ireland – or on a plane.
Lt-Col McMahon remembers his surprise when the cadets arrived at the cemetery the following day for the president's funeral. "We thought we'd be part of maybe an international group . . . but when we paraded to Arlington in the morning we found ourselves standing by the graveside . . . a few nerves started to tingle then."
The cadets stood by the graveside for almost two hours, and both men recall the sound of drums growing closer as the cortege approached. There was a great deal of noise, and such was their concentration as they waited to hear the order – in Irish – to begin the drill, that they were only dimly aware of the dignitaries, including Jacqueline Kennedy and JFK's brothers Bobby and Ted, also at the graveside.
At last, though, it was time to begin the Funeral Drill, and the cadets performed it without a flaw as the world looked on.
Both Lt-Col McMahon, who later joined the Air Corps, and Col Heaslip had near 40-year careers in the Defence Forces before retiring. And they are still in touch with many from the 37th cadet class. "Every cadet class has a bond, a camaraderie, but what's celebrated (at reunions) is unique to each class, and the Kennedy funeral is unique to us," says Col Heaslip (70).
As the former cadets lay a wreath on Kennedy's grave, it will also commemorate a unique moment in history – the only time foreign troops have been involved in the state funeral of a US president. And 50 years later, says Col Heaslip, he's still amazed that "faced with such a tragedy, (the US) ceded such a privileged position to a small country. It was just extraordinary."