Monday 26 February 2018

With military precision

The Defence Forces' 'Ceremonial Order' reveals the huge military operation for the US leader's visit, writes Ronan Abayawickrema

IT DETAILS every aspect of the operation, from how the soldiers should wear their berets and whiten their web belts, to the pre-planned speed of the vehicles in the ceremonial processions (5mph on the leg from Dublin Airport to the Swords Road).

The 'Ceremonial Order' for the visit of President John F Kennedy to Ireland in June 1963 provides information on every facet of the Defence Forces' involvement in what would be one of the biggest displays of military pageantry in the history of the State.

It was distributed to officials in the Department of Defence and the top brass of the Defence Forces, as well as the commanding officers of all the units which would play a part in the four-day visit.

"An event this size would have taken a considerable amount of resources, and a lot of planning," says Commandant Padraic Kennedy, Officer in Charge of the Military Archives.

Indeed, the fact that some 280 military personnel were required just to line the routes of the ceremonial processions during the visit gives an idea of the scale of the operation. And a glance through the 24-page Ceremonial Order reveals the diversity of units – from across the Defence Forces – that would be involved, from the military police, who would perform traffic control duties, to the School of Music, which would provide everything from a solemn funeral march at Arbour Hill Cemetery to pipe bands for receptions at Aras an Uachtarain and Collins Barracks in Cork.

Nothing was left to chance. In addition to detailed itineraries for each of President Kennedy's engagements during his four days in Ireland, the Ceremonial Order contains diagrams for particular events. "Sometimes, if you have a map (in the orders) it gives you a visual representation of where you're going to be and what's going to happen that you might not get from the pure text," says Cmdt Kennedy.

For example, the scale sketch map of the arrangements for the president's arrival at Dublin Airport on June 26, 1963 shows the exact position of the Guard of Honour, relative to Air Force One and the press enclosure. The battery for the 21-gun salute to welcome Kennedy is shown behind the plane, while the president's route can be traced from the moment he sets foot on the tarmac, as he inspects the guard and then makes his way with his party through the airport's VIP lounge to the waiting presidential car, before beginning the ceremonial procession into the city centre, accompanied by an 'Escort of Honour' from a motorbike cavalry unit.

"It's almost like looking at pieces on a chess board," says Cmdt Kennedy, "when you're on ceremonial display, the smallest detail can make a significant difference to the overall picture."

In all, the Defence Forces provided five guards of honour during Kennedy's visit, including a contingent from the Naval Service, who formed the guard when the president visited the Wexford memorial to Commodore John Barry, the Irish-born US naval commander in the American War of Independence, and the 'Special Guard' of cadets who performed the intricate funeral drill at the Arbour Hill ceremony to honour the leaders of the 1916 Rising.

As well as specific practice for Kennedy's visit, the servicemen involved in the honour guards would have drawn on their general military training to prepare for the rigours of standing still for hours at a time. "You can be there for a considerable period of time, and you're on public display," says Cmdt Kennedy. "It's like the training for any sport, (so) that your muscles get used to being able to stand at a particular position, and then (are) able to react quickly to the orders without getting too stiff."

The exhaustive lists in the Ceremonial Order give an idea of the vast logistical operation the Defence Forces mounted for the presidential visit. And while much has changed over the years, the fundamentals of planning for the Army's role in a state visit, whether it is that of John F Kennedy in 1963, or of Britain's Queen Elizabeth or US President Barack Obama in 2011, remain the same, says Cmdt Kennedy. "The planning and resources available will change, but the basic principles of how do we do it, what equipment do we need, what support do we need. . . will still apply."

All the planning certainly paid off in 1963. President Kennedy's visit to Ireland was a huge success, and contemporary media reports lauded the Defence Forces' contribution.

But it involved a huge amount of hard graft behind the scenes. "With any well-run operation, whether it's military or a stage production, you don't get to see the amount of work that goes into (it), that makes it look easy," says Cmdt Kennedy. "There's a reason (people) say something's done with military precision," he laughs.

Irish Independent

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