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Friday 27 April 2018

JFK: 'It's a dream, a nightmare – beyond belief'

Kim Bielenberg on how newspapers reported the assasination and the wave of emotion in its aftermath

'Daily Mirror' reported JFK's death
'Daily Mirror' reported JFK's death
'The Dallas Morning News' reported JFK's death
Final moments: The motorcade in Dallas
'Irish Independent' reported JFK's death
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

As the tragic news of the shooting came through on the evening of November 22, Irish newspapers had to rush frantically to put together special editions at short notice.

The Irish Independent reported that it was one of the busiest evenings in the history of the paper. Messages of sympathy poured in from all over the country.

The Irish Independent and Irish Press both carried the same banner headline in capitals – "PRESIDENT KENNEDY ASSASSINATED" – adding that the suspect Lee Harvey Oswald had been detained.

The Irish Independent reported the news with a crisp opening sentence: "An assassin yesterday shot and killed President Kennedy as he drove in an open car in Dallas, Texas."

The report told how "shots rang out as his motorcade passed through the city's main business section.

"He collapsed face down in his car. His wife, Jacqueline, threw herself over him, crying 'Oh, no'."

There was a picture on the front page of the smiling president just one minute before the shooting.

In a story on the Irish reaction, the paper reported: "Ireland heard the news of President Kennedy's death with shock and bewilderment and, as the full realisation of it dawned on the people, a tide of deep sorrow and emotion swept the country. At first it was almost too much to believe."

With six pages of reports, reminiscences of his Irish visit, pictures and analysis, the paper caught the wave of emotion, telling how women burst into tears on the street when they heard.

The tribute in the paper's leader column rose to the occasion with historic fervour: "Had he been less devoted, less determined, less concerned that his vision should become reality he need not have fallen to an assassin's bullet. The mediocre are suffered to live; it is those who stand head and shoulders above their fellow men who invite the hatred of the demented. It was so with Lincoln. It was so with Kennedy. . .

"He brought honour to the ancient race from which he was sprung. It was good to have lived in his day."

In a sign of how language has changed in the intervening half century, an article by the paper's political correspondent, Arthur Noonan, was headlined: "Kennedy a thoughtful gay host."

"It is difficult to recreate, through the numb shock and disbelief we all share in face of an overwhelming tragedy, a gay, glittering, splendid scene in the Mayflower Hotel, Washington, six weeks ago last Wednesday, when a lighthearted, laughing President Kennedy shook my hand and spent several minutes chatting with the four journalists present from Dublin."

On the morning after the assassination, the front page of the Irish Press had a picture of Jacqueline Kennedy arriving back in Washington with the coffin, the blood of her dead husband still on her suit and stockings.

A reporter from the Irish Press turned up at the home of a cousin of the president in Co Wexford in the hours after the news broke, and reported: "When I called at the president's ancestral homestead at Dunganstown, outside New Ross last night, grey-haired Mrs Mary Ryan, Mr Kennedy's third cousin, was grief stricken and almost unable to speak.

"She murmured: 'It's tragic' and then broke down completely."

The farm house, which had housed a famous tea party with JFK the previous June, was said to be silent except for the sounds of women crying.

There were reminiscences in the Irish Independent by Ryan Tubridy's aunt, Dorothy Tubridy, who was a friend of the president.

"Everything about Ireland seemed to delight him. He would pull a chair aside and in all sincerity enquire how the Irish spent an average day."

In the Sunday Independent, two days after the assassination, attention turned to the funeral arrangements with the front-page headline – "DRAMATIC REQUEST".

"A unique honour for the Irish Army came last night with a late message from Washington that Mrs Jacqueline Kennedy had made a special request that a contingent of the Irish Army should go to Washington to take part in the funeral of President Kennedy."

The 27 Irish cadets who stood at the president's graveside were naturally the focus of attention in the front-page report of the funeral in the Irish Independent two days later under the headline "KENNEDY BURIED IN HERO'S GRAVE".

"Under a bright blue sky, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was lowered into a hero's grave here today before the leaders of 60 nations.

"As the procession filed into the historic cemetery, the Platoon of 27 Irish cadets, whose presence was requested by Mrs Jacqueline Kennedy, was drawn up and standing at ease by the grave.

"The Irishmen went through an intricate series of movements with their rifles, known as Queen Anne's Drill."

The novelist Benedict Kiely summed up the sense of loss in Ireland on the front page of the Irish Press: "A few yards from the route where, six months ago, John Fitzgerald Kennedy passed in friendship and happiness, in all the youthful infectious strength of his manhood, I looked, as people all over the world looked, to see the last earthly progress of that great man to an untimely grave.

"When a man in the group I was with said, 'It's a dream, a nightmare; it's beyond belief,' he expressed what we all felt, what people everywhere feel."

It was a feeling that was to remain constant in the months and years that followed.

Irish Independent

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