Lunch with...Mark Minihan - 'He was devastated – for Andy it was as if a member of the family had died'
Graham Clifford talks to Mark Minihan, whose father Andy, 'Mr Mayor', charmed the US president on his New Ross visit
When Mark Minihan laughs, his entire frame shudders and his substantial moustache rises and falls. We're chatting about his late father Andy – who so famously welcomed JFK to the Wexford town of New Ross in 1963. Mark's storytelling repertoire seems endless and every recollection is laced with humour and roguery.
I've come to the banks of the Barrow to find out more about Andy Minihan – the former town council leader who, when realising there were problems with the PA system as JFK took his seat, calmly uttered to the crowd "we're in right trouble now".
It became Andy's catch-phrase of sorts, as Mark explains: "For years afterwards when he'd walk into a pub or some other place, people would greet him with 'We're in right trouble now' – people still say it today 50 years on, it's amazing."
The bearded Andy and the fresh-faced Irish American hit it off and, as they parted company that fateful summer, the two promised one other they'd meet again soon. Just five months later, on a chilly Friday night, news reached the small Wexford town which shook it to its core.
Outside the window of the Brandon House Hotel, stunning fuchsia bushes dance gently in the afternoon breeze while inside, Mark recalls what happened here on that awful night in November 1963.
"I was only 15 at the time. We used to go back into the local Christian Brothers School from six to eight o'clock in the evening to study. I was just leaving when I met a fella coming up the hill and he said 'isn't it terrible news about President Kennedy', I thought there's a joke here somewhere – I waited for the punchline, but it didn't come. At about 8.20pm, my father came into town to use the telephone at the Royal Hotel to ring America, send telegrams and make a plan. The whole place was shell-shocked. I remember Andy was absolutely devastated. For him, and others, it was like a family member had been killed."
Did he cry? I asked: "I'm sure he did but I don't have any clear recollection of him doing that – men didn't really cry at the time, and if they did, it was in private."
Andy, a Fianna Fáil councillor, was chosen to represent the town at President Kennedy's funeral but there was one snag – he didn't have a passport.
On the morning of Sunday, November 24, diplomats rushed to issue Andy with documentation in Iveagh House, while their colleagues down the road at the American Embassy had a visa waiting for him.
Andy, with a shiny new green passport in hand, rushed to Dublin Airport to board a special flight to Washington.
"There was a huge melee," recalls Mark. "De Valera was on the same flight and I remember Seán Lemass was there to wave him off. Also on board were the Irish cadets who would play at the graveside in Arlington Cemetery.
My father ended up sitting beside Labour Party leader Brendan Corish in economy – but Dev was up in first class."
With our main courses polished off at record speed, Mark and I sink back into the leather chairs in the restaurant lounge as Andy's escapades in Washington are relived.
"When he got there, he realised there was a great shortage of accommodation. Andy was allocated a room with Cathal O'Shannon who was covering the funeral for the Irish Times. When it was time to head off to the service, Andy realised he'd no suitable socks packed, so he borrowed some from O'Shannon. He never gave them back!"
Andy, a small-town businessman who was born in Skibereen but raised in Glasgow, found himself rubbing shoulders with more household names on Pennsylvania Avenue.
"He had a quick chat with Lyndon Johnson who would succeed JFK as president, shared a nice conversation with Jacqueline Kennedy, where she told him of how her husband enjoyed his visit to Ireland so much, and he also met with Bobby Kennedy in the White House. They all referred to my father as 'Mr Mayor'."
While never forgetting his role as ambassador for his town at the funeral, Andy also went places others wouldn't dare go.
"He wouldn't have been one bit shy of going up to them (the heads of state). He would have stood out like Haile Selassie with his big beard!" jokes Mark and his hearty laugh echoes across the restaurant floor.
He produces Andy's passport from his top pocket and as we leaf through it, I see the name, address and telephone number of JFK's press secretary Pierre Salinger scribbled in blue ink on one of the pages.
"He hit it off very well with Salinger – sure he showed him around Washington when they were there. I suppose they struck up a friendship when Salinger was in Ireland preparing for JFK's visit in June. He used to send us a Christmas card for years afterwards."
When Andy returned to New Ross, locals gathered around to ask about what was both a tragic funeral but also the world's most high-profile event in living memory.
He told them how he'd filed past the president's casket and prayed for him at the cemetery. The fact that Andy and JFK's cousin, Mary-Ann Ryan, had been there was a huge source of comfort for a local community wrapped in incredulous grief.
Locally, Andy's reputation soared, and nationally, he was much sought-after as well.
"He was on the Late, Late Show a good few times," recalls Mark. "Himself and Gay Byrne got on great."
Contacts made in Washington in 1963 led to scores of invites dropping through Andy's letter box from the mayors of American cities – everyone wanted a bit of the man who made JFK laugh so whole-heartedly on his return to the Emerald Isle. Ireland was romanticised as never before.
"He was involved in leading the St Patrick's Day Parade in 1964 in New York after receiving an invitation from Mayor Wagner. While there, he was made an honorary member of the Loyal Yiddish Sons of Erin. He said: 'That's all right ... as long as I don't have to have the operation!'"
Mayor Daly brought him to Chicago, while Mayor Tom Whelan had Andy over to Jersey City on three occasions.
"After that though, Whelan got into a bit of financial difficulty and was hauled off – that was the end of Andy's trips there."
He also attended the funeral of Bobby Kennedy in 1968.
A year before he passed away in 1989, Andy decided, out of the blue, to visit an old friend in Australia much to the shock of his family – his wife Nan had passed away in 1984.
"One minute he was deteriorating quickly, the next he was heading off Down Under." While there, his celebrity-meet-ups continued. Mark explains.
'He was at a St Patrick's Day parade and had to go to the loo. He was in doing his business and this fella came in and stood beside him doing the same. Andy looked at him and after a minute said: 'You look very familiar, do I know you? are you from Dublin?' – 'No', says he, 'I'm Bob Hawk, the Australian PM'. Andy didn't bat an eyelid and said back – 'Ah sure I knew I saw you somewhere before'."
Andy was 78 when he passed away on a trip to Kilmarnock in Scotland with a pipe band – he died just 10 miles away from where he grew up.
His funeral was one of the biggest ever seen in New Ross as pipe and brass bands lined the streets. Mark pauses as he remembers a father who, he says, was never grey, was always up for a good argument and who charmed JFK.
"Looking back, I suppose his connection with President Kennedy gave him a kind of local notoriety but, indirectly, it also provided us and the town with amazing stories which lit up those dark winter nights year after year."