Thursday 18 January 2018

The proud son

Owen Casey tells Graham Clifford how his father welcomed JFK to Cork city

JFK and Cork's lord mayor Sean Casey arrive at City Hall
JFK and Cork's lord mayor Sean Casey arrive at City Hall
Owen Casey with his son Eoin and grandson Sam at City Hall

As a 12-year-old, wide-eyed boy, Owen Casey sat mesmerised by the young politician addressing the crowd at Cork City Hall. He hung on his every word and was brimming with admiration for the gifted orator in his midst.

He talked about freedom, the struggles of ordinary people and the dream of a life in the new world. But the focus of the little boy's veneration was not President Kennedy but his own father, Lord Mayor of Cork Sean Casey.

Tragically, within four years, both young men would be dead.

First elected to the Dail as a Labour TD for the Cork borough constituency in 1954, Sean Casey held on to his seat until 1967 when he passed away after suffering a stroke aged just 45.

He served as lord mayor on three separate occasions and his second term in office was about to end when President Kennedy arrived in his native city.

"My father was a gregarious type of character and sure everyone in Cork knew him. He would have been very well regarded in the city across the political divide," recalls Owen, who was 16 when his father died.

"When he wrote his speech for President Kennedy's visit I know that he wanted to send a message out to whoever was listening around the world. We had a huge inferiority complex as a nation but this was an opportunity to be proud, an acknowledgement that we were somebody.

"My father was always very considered and well prepared and he wanted to do much more than just welcome the US president."

A father of eight young children, who lived in Turners Cross, TD Alderman Casey stood out on the 1963 trip for the speech he gave in which he told the president: "The people of Cork have always loved freedom and have shown by their actions that they do so. . . We believe in the right to freedom, whether it be in Hungary, East Germany, Angola or Alabama or South Africa."

Taking ownership of President Kennedy and reminding him of where his values came from, the lord mayor added: "We welcome you here today as the descendent of a freedom-loving people."

With just a few notes to prompt him, Alderman Casey's speech concluded with: "You sir, in our eyes, represent all that is best, all that is honourable, all that is valued in our people. . . a truly great Irishman."

When President Kennedy rose to reply and address the 1,000 people inside City Hall he joked: "Once again I'm reminded that the Irish have not lost their ability to speak," in reference to the power and length of Alderman Casey's speech.

In one of the most famous passages given on the trip, JFK told those gathered: "I bring to you today the greetings of the people of Galway, New York; Dublin, New Hampshire; the people of Killarney, West Virginia; Kilkenny, Minnesota; the people of Limerick, Maine; and the people of Shamrock, Texas."

Following the speeches and the presentation of the freedom of the city, the president briefly visited the lord mayor's office in which about 50 people gathered.

"I remember when I shook his (the president's) hand, it was very pudgy, quite fat for a slim man – for some reason that just stuck in my mind," recalls Owen Casey.

Within four years, both Alderman Casey and President Kennedy had died.

"It was a terrible shock when my father passed away suddenly. He'd been up in the Dail the day before and got into trouble after a debate about an issue in Cork which he wanted raised. He came home that night, suffered the stroke and never regained consciousness. He was lord mayor at the time and I remember he had a massive funeral in Cork."

Sean's widow, Josephine, was 37 when her husband died. Their youngest child was just four years of age.

In later years she too would hold a city council seat. Owen became involved in the environmental and anti-nuclear movement and ran as a Green Party candidate in the 1982 (November) General Election, securing more than 1,300 first preferences but falling short of being elected.

He works as a guidance counsellor at Douglas Community School, Cork, and has three children with his wife Colette – Neil, Barra and Caitriona.

"Of course, when the children were young I'd tell them about the day their grandfather welcomed the president to Cork."

Unfazed by his meeting with JFK, Alderman Casey had in fact met another American president just a few months before.

In August 1962, President Kennedy's predecessor, Dwight D Eisenhower, stopped in Cork on a four-day visit to Ireland.

At Kent railway station, Alderman Casey officially welcomed 'Ike' to the city.

Fine Gael Cllr Brian Bermingham was also in the lord mayor's office when JFK dropped in on June 28, 1963, on account of his father John holding a council seat at the time.

"I got split up from my father and remember walking directly behind President Kennedy for a few steps. I shook his hand and remember thinking, 'this man is such a hero', especially after the nuclear stand-off with the Russians. I couldn't quite believe how close I was to him considering all of Cork wanted to shake his hand that day."

Irish Independent

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