Thursday 14 December 2017

Tea and sympathy from Mary Ann, the cousin with the ready smile

Mary Ann Ryan cherished her meeting with President Kennedy and sadly attended his funeral. Graham Clifford tells her story

JFK with Mary Ann Ryan (with teapot) at a tea party in his ancestral town of Dunganstown, Co Wexford
JFK with Mary Ann Ryan (with teapot) at a tea party in his ancestral town of Dunganstown, Co Wexford
An Post used the Mary Ann Ryan image in a special postage stamp to commemorate the visit
John F Kennedy with his cousin Mary Ann Ryan when he visited Ireland in 1963.
The military tags which Jackie Kennedy presented to Mary Ann after JFK's death.
Mary Ann Ryan (far right) with her mother Mary and sister sister at the Juniper tree President Kennedy planted at their home
A handwritten letter sent home by Mary Ann when she visited America to attend the funeral of JFK.
The second handwritten letter sent home by Mary Ann when she visited America to attend the funeral of JFK.

SHE was the pretty 23-year-old cousin pouring tea for the president from a silver teapot as though she knew him all her life. Pictures of Mary Ann Ryan were beamed across the world – her genuine smile summing up the informality of this particular family gathering.


Fifty years on she features on a commemorative stamp to mark the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's visit.

A nurse in the Rotunda Hospital in 1963, Mary Ann was one of two daughters born to Mary Ryan. The other, Josie, died in 1979 from a brain tumour at the young age of 41. There was also a brother, Tom, but he passed when aged 15 in 1955.

The confident but quiet Wexford girl grew up tending to the small family farm at home with her mother and sister – her father having passed away in the late 1950s.

She trained to be a nurse in the Dr Steevens Hospital in Dublin and her charming nature shone when the TV cameras rolled and cameras flashed at Dunganstown.



When President Kennedy was assassinated the following November, word was sent from the White House for Mary Ryan to come for the funeral.

"She wasn't interested in travelling so Mary Ann decided to go in her place," says Patrick Grennan, nephew of Mary Ann.

She was taken to Shannon for a specially chartered flight.

Her first cousin Pat Kirwan remembers her saying; "The plane had been sitting in Shannon waiting for me and the Romanian president (Gheorghe Gheorghiu) was on board. He was giving out yarns for being delayed."

In handwritten letters which Mary Ann sent back to her mother and sister, she describes being "treated like something in a glass case".

She was taken by American officials to the White House and attended the funeral of President Kennedy with the direct family.

She wrote: "I was in the family car to the funeral procession with Princess Radziwill (sister-in-law of JFK) and Ted's wife (Virginia Joan Kennedy). After the funeral I was taken back to the White House and stayed all evening where I had dinner with Jackie and all the family there – Jackie is a wonderful person."

On another journey that day she travelled with Patricia Kennedy Lawford, JFK's sister, and her husband, famous British actor, Peter Lawford.

At the funeral, Mary Ann sat beside Martin Luther King.

In the White House that evening Jackie brought Mary Ann into a room and gave her the rosary beads President Kennedy had with him on the day he died as well as his military identification tag.

In another letter home, Mary Ann wrote: "I stayed in a hotel next to the White House with (Matthew) McCloskey (US Ambassador to Ireland) and (Taoiseach) De Valera. Dev invited me to join his party for dinner last night and all were very nice to me, you couldn't believe how I was treated."

In contrast, Mary Ann opened a window into her more humble life in Ireland when she enquired as to how she'd get back to Wexford when she returned from America where she was constantly followed by the press during her stay.

"Will you let me know what time or how I am to get home? I don't mind going by train if you. . . can meet me at Waterford (station). It'd nearly be as handy and as cheap for someone to meet me at Shannon."

When her beloved sister Josie died, Mary Ann, who by then was running her own ward in the Rotunda, returned to Dunganstown to look after her mother and brother-in-law and to help bring up her young nephews Patrick and Jim. Mary Ryan died in 1986, aged 86.

Within a few years her mother and the boy's father died and she reared her nephews as though they were her own. She too was diagnosed with a brain tumour but it was successfully operated on at Cork University Hospital.

Mary Ann, who passed away aged 70 in 2009, maintained close contact with Mary Boylan, a private secretary of JFK's. She also struck up a friendship with Jean Kennedy Smith during her time as US Ambassador to Ireland. "She didn't talk much about 1963," says Patrick Grennan.

"She was a quiet woman from a quiet family."

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Life