Sunday 19 November 2017

Protecting the President

Gardai and the Secret Service struggled to keep the crowds from reaching JFK, writes Paul Melia

Paul Melia

Paul Melia

IT was a visit which saw the young president mingle with the public in a way that would never be allowed today. President John F Kennedy's visit to Ireland is notable in that he often left his Secret Service agents to shake hands, kiss babies and chat to the people who came out to greet him.

It was a more innocent age, where the threat of suicide bombings and assassinations were never considered. But history shows us that just five months later the President was dead, shot in his open-topped car as it drove down a Dallas street.

Gardai were convinced that security arrangements were more than adequate for the visit. This was despite three death threats being received, including one telephoned to the offices of the Irish Independent.

In a letter from the Department of Justice to the Department of the Taoiseach, written just days prior to his arrival, a civil servant noted that police were "confident" that the arrangements were enough to ensure his safety.

However, it noted, gardai could not guarantee that a break-through from the crowd would not occur at some point.

"Indeed, we understand that President Kennedy has been known to boast that on no occasion yet have police precautions, anywhere, been able to contain the enthusiasm of the crowds," it added.

The president was correct. On the night he arrived, "the enthusiasm was so great that the crowds broke through the line of policemen as they sought to shake the president's hand" on O'Connell Street, the Irish Independent reported.

It was a situation which was replicated over the following four days.

Even when his motorcade was driving through the streets of Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Wexford, there were no barriers in place to hold the crowd back.

In Cork, President Kennedy's hand was grabbed by a well-wisher on his way into City Hall. A Secret Service agent had to wrench his arm away, causing both men to fall backwards.

Also in Cork, an enthusiastic supporter caused JFK to fall, but blushes were spared after the crowd caught him.

In Iveagh House, a group of girls grabbed the young president as he was leaving the state dinner, and gardai were forced to form a protective ring around him.

In hindsight, it's a surprise at just how close people got to JFK.

Our pictures show the crowd around him as he visited his cousin, a nun, in Wexford, with no sign of security.

Spectators sat on window sills on buildings flanking Patrick Street in Cork as his motorcade passed, any one of them a potential assassin.

In Wexford, men sat on a wall as he passed, while in New Ross a boat carrying spectators berthed behind him as he gave a speech to the assembled crowd.

In Dunganstown, he stopped to speak to a "group of tiny schoolgirls" lined up outside the homestead, shaking their hands and speaking to them in a "kindly, fatherly way", before walking to a side lane and speaking to a group of "local farmers and their wives who had stood respectfully at a discreet distance".

However, it was this personal touch and his willingness to meet the people that made his trip such a success.

But it did get out of hand on one occasion, during the Aras garden party, where he was mobbed by "over-exuberant" guests who became an "uncontrollable mass", forcing the president back inside.

His response? He "insisted" on going back through the crowds as he was leaving, saying he was "well used to it".

Even as he left from Shannon Airport, he threw caution to the wind, detaching himself from his security and going to the cheering crowd behind a rope barrier.

One of his final acts on Irish soil was to meet the people he had travelled so far to see. His willingness to connect with his audience was to prove his downfall just five months later.

Irish Independent

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