Saturday 18 November 2017

The flag girls

More than 300 excited Galway school girls formed a slightly shivering welcome for JFK. Anita Guidera meets one of them

Marie Dempsey (circled) waits in her green costume for JFK
Marie Dempsey (circled) waits in her green costume for JFK
Marie Dempsey who was part of the human flag for the visit of JFK 50 years ago.

Marie Dempsey was 14 years old and a sixth-class pupil at the Convent of Mercy School in Galway city on the day she turned green.

She was one of 320 senior primary school girls whose unusual task it was to create a human flag on the Sportsground as a welcoming gesture to the visiting US president, who was arriving by helicopter to the city.

The entire operation was executed with military-style precision by the staff and pupils of the school under the commanding eye of Sister Assumpta.

"There was great excitement at the time. I can remember parents being thrilled and the school being delighted that we had been picked to do this," recalled 64-year-old Marie in her Claregalway home.

"Looking back at it now, it just wouldn't happen today but they were different times. Rolls of green, white and gold for the flag and black material for the pole were brought into the school in advance.

"We went down early that morning and were brought in and there were several nuns and teachers there. We were each brought up and you were given your colour. I was green.

"Then they would take a plain piece of material and twist it around us and the head was formed and it came down on the forehead. We were then pinned together with straight pins," she recalled.


Watch an excerpt from JFK's speech in Galway


There were no trial runs and the girls were warned that any sudden movement or gesture could cause their costume to come apart. They were then marched down to the Sportsground and were lined up according to their colour.

"I remember it was quite cold. The girls in white could wear white Aran cardigans over their costume. I was lucky because I was one of the smaller ones and I could wear a cardigan underneath.

"It was breezy and our costumes were flapping around. We were all excited so I suppose we just didn't notice how long we were there for.

"We were under strict orders not to look up. Even when the helicopter came, we were told to keep our heads down so we didn't even see it land.

"From the air, he would not have been able to tell that it was people," she said.

When President Kennedy strode over to meet the girls, Marie was one of the lucky ones in the front row to shake his hand.

"I can't remember what he said but he was talking as he went along.

"We had learned 'Galway Bay' in advance so when he asked us to sing, that is what we sang.

"Then we all trekked back to the school and took off the costumes," she said.

Occupying pride of place in her living room today is a framed picture of Marie, now a grandmother of seven, and her classmates as the human flag that welcomed JFK to Galway.

And even today it continues to be a conversation point.

Irish Independent

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