Tuesday 24 October 2017

'He just had an aura... I felt so special to be part of it...'

Harpist Ruth Hurson with her photograph from the day signed by JFK
Harpist Ruth Hurson with her photograph from the day signed by JFK
Ruth Hurson's photograph signed by JFK of her playing the harp

Anita Guidera

'If the day was clear enough and you went down to the bay and you looked west, and your sight was good enough you would see Boston Massachusetts."

So began John F Kennedy's memorable speech to an estimated 100,000 people in Eyre Square.

Warming to his subject, he added: "I wonder if you could perhaps know how many of you here have relatives in America whom you'd admit to? If you would, hold up your hands".

Among those mesmerised by his words and the entire occasion was 16-year-old Tuam harpist, Ruth Bradley, who could see his foot tapping to the music and song from a platform below the high stage where the president and dignitaries sat.

"Even though I have had a wonderful music career performing in Jury's and Bunratty and travelling the world with my harp, when I look back on my life, I think that was probably the biggest honour I was ever given," said Ruth Hurson (66) at her south Dublin home.

A schoolgirl in Laurel Hill in Limerick, she was the only known harpist in the Connacht area at the time of the visit and so the honour was bestowed on her to perform for the president in Galway.

"I remember at the time not being as aware of the significance of what I had been asked to do but the awareness came when I saw my invitation.

"It said 'Ruth Bradley', with 'harpist' in brackets afterwards. This was my gilt-edged invitation to Eyre Square, so in a way I knew I had been singled out from the population and had a role to play, which excited me greatly."

Dressed in her traditional Aran Islands-style red skirt with black hoops at the bottom and black top with a Celtic design, Ruth looked the perfect Irish colleen poised with her harp in a picture that went around the world.

But despite her tender years, the two times Galway Oyster Queen title-holder and winner of many Feis Ceoil titles, was the consummate professional on the day.

"I knew how to control my emotions. I was aware this was a very big moment and how important it was not to forget the words or make a complete hash of my song, but I sang my heart out and I didn't make any mistakes," she said.

Ruth played and sang 'Oro Se Do Bheatha Bhaile' with the choir of local schoolboys and sang 'The Men from The West' as Irish dancers from several local Irish dancing schools performed.

During the performance she saw President Kennedy exchanging places with the mayor of Galway so he could have a better view and that was the moment it hit her how special an occasion it was.

"The place was buzzing and pumping, but when I stood up that day at the end of my performance and I turned around and I bowed to that table, I was so cogniscent that the acknowledgement from John F Kennedy and those people was for me."

Adding to her feeling of being special, Ruth was put up in the Ardilaun Hotel that night courtesy of the mayor of Galway and she still has the silver Claddagh ring she was given by Fallers Jewellers as a keepsake of the day.

"I never saw anything like it all before or since. The charisma that just oozed from the man and it wasn't just the women that were getting hot and bothered. It was everyone. People took their holidays just to go around after him from one place to another.

"He just had an aura that I never saw on anyone ever. I never saw such euphoria in my life as that whole trip and I felt so special to be a part of it."

Shortly after, the teenage Ruth posted two photographs of her playing the harp on the day to President Kennedy in the White House asking him to keep one copy and to sign and return the other one to her.

Poignantly, a letter postmarked November 21, the day before his assassination, was sent by his press secretary, Evelyn Lincoln confirming that the picture was on its way to her.

Some 18 months later she travelled to the White House with a man who was compiling an album of music played during the JFK visit to Ireland, where she met Ted Kennedy, on crutches following a plane crash.

"He offered to sign the book I was holding. Then we went up to Robert Kennedy and he wasn't in but he wrote me a note later saying he was very sorry he had missed me and telling me to call in the next time I was in Washington.

"It was incredible really when you think of it," she said.

Irish Independent

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