Wednesday 17 January 2018

Local man's daring date with JFK – for a £10 bet

The press corps – and Johnny Kirk (circled) – gathered at Dublin Airport for President Kennedy’s arrival in 1963.
The press corps – and Johnny Kirk (circled) – gathered at Dublin Airport for President Kennedy’s arrival in 1963.

Anne Campbell

UNSEEN colour film footage of President John F. Kennedy's arrival in Ireland in June 1963 has been uncovered after a Dundalk businessman revealed how he got past tight security at Dublin airport to capture the historic occasion – all for a ten pound bet.

Petrol retailer and shop owner, Johnny Kirk from Stonetown, managed to blag his way past American security detail and the gardaí, convincing them he was a member of the press, and had a prime position to shoot footage of JFK as he touched down in Ireland for the first time.

And it was only when a photograph of the 'press corps' was printed in a special supplement in the Irish Independent last week, commemorating 50 years since the visit, that Mr. Kirk's family spotted him in the picture and realised that the yarn he had told them for the past five decades was true.

Mr. Kirk was delighted to tell the story to The Argus, having already been a big hit on the Liveline radio show with Joe Duffy on Friday. Mr. Kirk said he had always been interested in cine-cameras but it was only after speaking to his long-time friend, Dundalk-based fruit stall holder Joe Clarke that the idea to go to meet Kennedy formed in his mind.

He said: 'Joe bet me a tenner that I wouldn't get near the airport – he said there was a five mile cordon around it. I've always loved a challenge and, after work, I headed with my cousin from Cookstown, Ardee, Sean McGeough, up to the airport'.

Despite the much-promised security, Mr. Kirk met little resistance, with gardaí believing the black Zodiac he was driving was an under-cover security car, and he managed to park in an airport car park. But he nearly came undone when he spotted Dundalk Superintendent McDonough getting out of a nearby vehicle. Mr Kirk said: 'The Super knew me very well as he was always moving me on from double parking in Clanbrassil Street every single week. I was very glad when he didn't cop me'.

Mr. Kirk boldly headed towards the terminal, armed only with a cinecam and his ample charm. He said: 'I had no plan, but when I met American security at the terminal, I said I was a member of the press and was looking for my press pass.

'I saw three press men and I tapped a man from London on the shoulder. I told him I was stuck for getting my press pass and he told the US security men to let me through to get my pass. The secret service guy asked him if he knew me and the guy said he knew me well, fair play to him'.

Mr. Kirk managed to convince numerous other security staff, gardaí and secret service personnel that he was a bone fide journalist and even claimed he worked for a fictional publication called the 'Carrickmacross Argus'. He gave the press organiser the number of a pub in Carrick, praying that she wouldn't ring it.

The Dundalk man managed to get onto a stand right on the tarmac and filmed nearly half an hour of footage as JFK set foot on Irish soil. He also filmed the bus journey back into O'Connell Street, but found himself stranded in the city centre as his car was still at the airport.

He said: 'I saw five garda superintendents in a car and flagged them down. I asked them to bring me back to the airport for my car and they did - I was sitting on a super's knee the whole way there'.

On his return to Dundalk, Mr. Kirk told his pal Joe about his adventure, but it was only when the fruit-seller saw the remarkable footage himself, did he concede he lost the bet and handed over the tenner. Unfortunately, a few months after that, Mr. Clarke and his brother died in a boating tragedy.

Mr. Kirk has been contacted by RTE archives section who want to see the footage. And it's not the only historic occasion tucked away in the businessman's film reels - he also captured the funeral of poet Patrick Kavanagh on tape.

He said: 'You know, if I was a bit younger, I would have been in Enniskillen for the G8, probably carrying President Obama's bags!'

The Argus

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