Sunday 17 December 2017

'His hair, those teeth, that tanned skin, those eyes!' - Ryan Tubridy on the JFK visit

Ryan Tubridy's aunt Dorothy with President Kennedy's sister Ms Eunice Shriver at the Aras an Uachtarain garden party.
Ryan Tubridy's aunt Dorothy with President Kennedy's sister Ms Eunice Shriver at the Aras an Uachtarain garden party.
US President John F Kennedy
Ryan Tubridy's book JFK in Ireland

Ryan Tubridy

It was a dark and dank June evening in Dublin when the roar of Air Force One made its presence felt to the expectant crowd. Waiting at the red carpet was one man in particular who had come to embody Ireland.

Eamonn de Valera, waxen and austere, was waiting patiently for another president who many felt embodied his own nation.

Two warriors, one Civil, the other Cold, were about to meet as leaders of their respective countries, but the contrast between the two men couldn't have been greater.

Dev the isolationist and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the globalist. One a speaker in verbose monotone, the other, a silver-tongued master of public speaking. Dev the monochrome was about to encounter Kennedy, the glorious technicolour.

It is one of the first things people say when remembering the Kennedy visit and their first sight of the man himself. "His hair, those teeth, that tanned skin, the eyes!" Here was Oz, live and in the flesh in Kansas. Maybe it was the lack of colour television and perhaps it was the overpowering charisma but there is no doubting the dazzling effect Kennedy had on everyone he met or even drove past.

From the moment he started speaking, Kennedy had the people of Ireland in the palm of his hand. A cursory look at the papers of this time shows a media intoxicated by the glamour and significance of this visit.

Kennedy had insisted on coming to Ireland at the end of his European tour. The Cold War needed a hands-on tending to and so the president made his way to various capitals to shore up support and to show how committed he was to the "cause of freedom".

Against all advice, he came to Ireland. Those around him felt the Irish leg of the trip was an indulgence, a whimsical junket for the playboy prince. But Kennedy had been here before, as a journalist, a congressman and a senator so this would be his fourth visit to a country he was more attached to than he was ever given credit.

For his part, Kennedy used the political element of the trip to promote the importance of small nations and their contribution to the protection of democracy. He also wanted to praise Ireland for its promotion of peace through the United Nations, but these things got lost in history as the focus of the visit to Ireland has always remained in the realm of teary-eyed nostalgia.

There was, of course, a hokey feel to much of the visit but when I spoke to Kennedy adviser Ted Sorensen who accompanied the president, he suggested that Kennedy rather deserved a relaxing trip at the end of a gruelling political season.

Certainly when Kennedy arrived and into the first day or two, it was all business, but as the days trickled by, it became apparent that here was a man starting to feel very comfortable in his skin and very much at ease among the people with whom he found himself mingling.

Watching footage of the time, it is extraordinary to watch the leader of the Free World wandering around the family homestead in Dunganstown just outside New Ross, Co Wexford. Kennedy is warmly embracing his cousins, pouring tea, eating sandwiches and cutting the cake made with his own image on top!

He turns to Mary Ryan and asks, "Should I cut this Mrs Ryan?" to which she distractedly answers, "Yes, yes cut . . ." The president roars laughing as he looks at his image on the cake and mutters, "cut yourself".

He then addresses the crowd gathered in the rudimentary yard with microphone in one hand and half-eaten slice of cake in the other. This was truly an Irish state visit.

There were other moments of history and hilarity. The speech delivered to a joint sitting of the Oireachtas, despite a few clangers, must rate as one of the best ever delivered to that assembly. Mixing humour and history with alarming alacrity, Kennedy made those listening sit up with pride and appreciation.

A visit to Aras an Uachtarain was marred by the great and the good. Such was the excitement brought on by the president's arrival, the poor man had to be taken back into the house as the stilettoed throng swarmed at him. The damp day led to heels being stuck in mud and chairs being turned over as the president tried to make his way to a tree-planting ceremony with mixed success.

A visit to Arbour Hill was punctuated by the Irish Army Cadet school drills, a sight that took the president's breath away and a moment he later recalled as among his favourites from the trip.

Within five months, Irish cadets would be performing the same drill at the graveside of the slain president.

As he was saying goodbye, President Kennedy made a comment that is extraordinary coming from the mouth of America's first citizen: "This is not the land of my birth, but it is the land for which I hold the greatest affection."

He promised to return in the springtime, but it was not to be.

Irish Independent

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