Saturday 24 February 2018

'I looked up and he was a giant of a man'

JFK bent down and took a little girl's hand. 50 years later Kathleen Doyle tells Graham Clifford the story of that day

JFK bends down to talk to six-year-old Kathleen Doyle (JFK Library)
JFK bends down to talk to six-year-old Kathleen Doyle (JFK Library)
Kathleen Doyle with the famous photograph of her talking to President Kennedy.

For four hours in Dunganstown, six-year-old Kathleen Doyle stood waiting patiently for the most powerful man in the world to walk by.

One of the 55 schoolchildren from the local Ballykelly national school who formed a guard of honour for JFK to the waiting helicopters, Kathleen ended up getting more than she bargained for.

As he bid adieu to his relations, JFK stopped to chat with the shy local girl – a photographer captured the moment and the picture appeared on the front of that day's 'Evening Press'.

Recently, Kathleen and some of her former school-mates returned to the Kennedy family homestead – many for the first time in 50 years.

"I was just in awe of him," recalls Kathleen.

"I looked up and he was a giant of a man towering over me. All the photographers rushed around – it was a hectic moment.

"He asked me my name and age and something like 'are they new shoes?'. I replied with 'it's a secret' – maybe I didn't want to reveal they'd been sent over from England. I don't know, I was very young.

"It took years for it to sink in . . . that I actually spoke with him."

Ita Lennon was less fortunate.

"A big, burly security man stood in front of me as the president was coming down the line. He took a pace back and stepped on my toes. I spent the rest of the day crying. I've never forgiven him," she tells me jokingly.

Still, the president left a lasting impression on Ita, who, as a child, sold souvenirs to tourists in the Kennedy family cottage where JFK's great-grandfather Patrick grew up.

"I remember even at 10 thinking he's so gorgeous and so charming."


Video: JFK speaks in Wexford


Five members of the Dempsey family were in Dunganstown to greet the president. Four children, Peggy, Marie, Jim and Julie, were all in the guard of honour and their mother helped bake cakes in the Ryan family home.

"We were so young, we hardly knew what he looked like – when his entourage were walking towards us, we had to check which one he was. Sure no one had a television back then," recalls Jim Dempsey.

Many were dressed in their Holy Communion and Confirmation outfits with eyes fixed on the table of food laid out in the yard.

"We were starved with the hunger. After he went, we rushed to the tables where all the lovely cakes and sandwiches were – but by that stage there wasn't a thing left, the press people had cleared the lot," says Mick Molloy.

Sean Hearn, then aged 10, now realises how privileged they all were. "Thinking back, ours was probably the most important national school on the planet that day."

Irish Independent

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