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Thursday 18 January 2018

JFK: 'They have shot him! They have shot him!' cried my elderly American lecturer

The murder of President Kennedy came as a brutal shock to Irish people and affected the country for many years

* Watch video clips of Ireland's reaction in 1963 at the bottom of this story

Dr Dermot Keogh

Where were you when you heard the news of the assassination of John F Kennedy? That is a question most people of my generation (I was 18 in 1963) could answer with uncanny accuracy.

I did not see Telefís Éireann newsreader Charles Mitchel shock the nation shortly after 7pm on Friday, November 22, when he interrupted programming to read the chilling words: 'We have just heard that an attempt has been made on President Kennedy's life in Dallas, Texas, First reports say that he has been badly wounded. We will bring you more information as soon as possible.'

Seconds later, a friend rushed out of the TV room to tell me the dramatic news. I can still remember exactly where I was and every detail about who told me and how the news was phrased. "They have shot him! They have shot him," this elderly US philosophy lecturer said.

He did not have to tell me the name of the victim. I knew immediately. Neither did he need to explain the 'they.' I knew he meant forces in the US opposed to the president's programmes for social and political reform. He had spoken often in class about his fears for the safety of Kennedy as he discussed contemporary US politics.

Hoping against hope that the next news flash might bring some glimmer about his having survived the attack, we waited. Twenty minutes later, a visibly moved Charles Mitchel again interrupted TV programming to tell the country: "President Kennedy has been shot dead by an assassin in Dallas, Texas." There are a few moments in life that are hyper-realistic. This was one such moment for me and for many people throughout the island of Ireland that Friday night.

In a world before the internet and social media, the news of Kennedy's death spread like a bush fire. It was as if a tsunami of grief had enveloped the country. One newspaper reported: "Numbed with shock and horror of the dreadful assassination of Kennedy, the Irish nation mourned last night. Grief-stricken thousands in cities, towns and villages left their homes to gather in churches to pray.

"Cinemas, theatres and all places of entertainment rapidly emptied as the chilling facts of his death spread like wildfire among an unbelieving and bewildered populace ... In homes all over the country, families watching television heard the news in silence and in many houses once the news was confirmed, prayers were said. The rain-washed streets of Dublin were filled with hurrying people who made their way to the Pro-Cathedral and other churches to pray."

Public meetings throughout the country were cancelled or adjourned as a mark of respect to the late president. All GAA matches for Sunday, the 24th, and men's hockey games for the Saturday were cancelled.

Why was there such an outpouring of national grief? Kennedy's triumphant visit to Ireland a few months earlier in June that year was fresh in everybody's mind.

Those were very memorable days and, not least, for the people of Wexford from whence this great-grandson of an Irish emigrant traced his roots and heritage.

The night of the assassination Wexford went into mourning: "Blinds were drawn and many indoor amusements were cancelled last night at New Ross as the news of President Kennedy's death spread rapidly. Women wept openly and many others, including men, were heard to remark that they were too stunned to cry."

In Cork, Limerick, Waterford and other cities and towns the scenes of public grief were the same. It was not necessary to declare a day of mourning. The country was already in a state of shock and people were grief-stricken.

I have frequently asked myself since then what made Kennedy so special to Irish people. The dramatic success of his 1963 visit provides part of the answer – but only part of the answer. The real answer lies elsewhere.

He was most admired because he had – to quote Frank O'Connor – broken through "age-old American prejudices against Catholics, against Irishmen and against intellectuals".

That was his triple achievement when as an Irish, Catholic and Harvard graduate, he won the US presidency, and made the first tentative steps towards pressing forward to achieve civil rights and desegregation.

Teaching at Boston College for a year recently, I had an opportunity to read about the struggle Irish Catholics had to make good in an environment that was once deeply prejudiced and sectarian. The social geography of the city reflects a past when Irish, Jewish, Italian and other immigrants were the outsiders and, if lucky, were admitted to serve below stairs.

The measure of the achievement of the immigrant Catholic Irish and other immigrant groups may today be almost too much taken for granted. The struggle for equality was a long and hard road. The Kennedy family certainly helped break through the not-so-invisible barriers of social prejudice in the US.

Thus, many Irish Catholic Americans – with the benefit of an outstanding university education but not with the material riches of the Kennedys – were well placed to take the path to upward social mobility provided by Kennedy's election to the White House in 1960. In Ireland, in 1963, the Kennedy family were given credit for the breakthrough enjoyed by the Catholic Irish in the US. Kennedy was their battering ram to upward social mobility, or so it was perceived.

Jack – and even more so, his brother, Bobby – was a new kind of world leader who had guided the Western block successfully through the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, displaying a coolness of judgment and a steely resolve sadly lacking in Irish leadership during the banking crisis of 2008. The missile crisis ended peacefully but Kennedy, combining creative diplomatic skills and an iron fist, did not buckle under pressure during those difficult 13 days when the world faced the prospect of a thermo-nuclear war.

As a teenager in 1963, the assassination left an indelible mark on me. Naively, I thought then that political murder was a tool of a past era. I was convinced that, at 46, Kennedy had, perhaps, the prospect of a second term in the White House – and sufficient time to carry out his ambitious programme of reforms. That was not as it turned out.

To add to the tragedy of violent opposition to change in the 1960s, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy would share the fate of Jack Kennedy; King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, and Bobby Kennedy in Los Angeles on June 6, 1968. Gun law appeared to rule.

In Ireland, Kennedy's country of adoption, he brought a sense of excitement and of dynamism to people and a challenge to a revolutionary leadership in power in Dublin which had grown old, complacent and tired. For a teenager in 1963, Ireland was a country for 'old men' where tens of thousands had taken flight to Britain, the US and Australia for work during the barren years of the 1950s.

The visit of John F Kennedy in 1963 brought a sense of hope and excitement to an otherwise drab and arthritic country.

Kennedy's assassination that Friday night felt to me like a source of great danger to world peace and the death of hope. But an assassin's bullet does not always change the course of history to the path that the conspirator would wish it to take and it did not do so in the cases of Martin Luther King or Bobby Kennedy.

However short-lived the presidency of John F Kennedy, it had a profound influence on the course of US and international history. His successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, embraced domestic reform and won through on the civil rights issue.

An assassin may kill a leader but not a movement for change. Those early freedom riders in the early 1960s in the US dared to hope. Barack Obama is now in the White House proving that, sometimes, hope and history chime.

The author is emeritus professor of history, University College Cork


23 November 1963 - Mayor of Limerick Frances Condell pays tribute to the late President Kennedy on RTÉ News


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



24 November 1964 - John Bowman takes to the streets of Dublin to get people’s reactions to the death of President Kennedy (audio only)


Footage courtesy of the RTE Archives

Irish Independent

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