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John F Kennedy was not a sentimental man. When he told friends and family that his visit to Ireland in June 1963 was the happiest time of his life, they knew he really meant it. For weeks afterward he would watch home movies of the trip in his White House cinema, urging everybody around him, "You've got to come and see this!"

If JFK's homecoming meant a lot to him, however, it meant even more to the Irish. Just like today, the country was preparing to mark an anniversary of the 1916 Rising and wondering if we really had much to celebrate. At a time when Ireland badly needed a psychological lift, the leader of the free world assured us that we had a great future as well as a tragic past.

That's why those four summer days are so fondly remembered – even at a remove of five decades – by those who lived through them.

The story really begins in 1947, when young Congressman Kennedy dropped in on his Irish cousins at a small thatched farmhouse in Co Wexford. On the way home his friend Pamela Churchill (Winston's daughter-in-law) made a patronising remark about the rural scene they had just witnessed.

"I felt like kicking her out of the car," he wrote afterwards. "For me, the visit to that cottage was filled with magic sentiment."


Sixteen years later, President Kennedy's advisers thought he was crazy to include Ireland in his European tour. "We've got the Irish vote already," his right-hand man Kenny O'Donnell told him. "People will think it's just a pleasure trip."

But with the Cold War at its height, a pleasure trip was exactly what JFK wanted. To some Irish people, the new arrival's deep tan and gleaming white teeth made him look like a visitor from outer space. In all his speeches, however, he hammered home the same messages that Michelle Obama told children at the Gaiety Theatre this week – "It's good to be home" and "I'm really just one of you." In a country where almost every family had been scarred by emigration, it was hardly surprising that this struck such an emotional chord. Kennedy had also done his homework. On the quay at New Ross he name-checked the local businesses, joking that if his great-grandfather had not left during the Famine, "I'd be working over at the Albatross company or perhaps for John V Kelly."

In his historic address to the Oireachtas, he flattered TDs by declaring that he might be sitting down with them instead. He then brought the house down by referring to the US-born Eamon de Valera: "Of course, if your own President had never left Brooklyn, he might be standing up here instead of me." On a more serious note, Kennedy praised Ireland as an inspiration to small nations seeking freedom all over the world.

As usual, JFK knew the right buttons to push – and he did it with his trademark grace, wit and style. Looking back at old newsreel footage now, Kennedy's ecstatic audiences are even more striking than the man himself. Grown men and women wept after shaking his hand, while small children such as Enda Kenny and Bertie Ahern sat at home and learned his speeches off by heart. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have given us some memorable days since then, but in a sense they are JFK tribute acts who can never quite match up to his charisma.

For his part, Kennedy seemed to be genuinely moved by the warmth of his welcome. Normally a cool customer, he surprised his security staff by hugging distant relatives, joining in sing-songs and tapping his foot to an Irish dancing display. As the visit drew to an end, he remarked wistfully: "I wish we could stay for another week or even a month."

Of course, the Kennedy myth has been tarnished since those innocent days in 1963. We now know that behind the healthy glow, he was a desperately sick man who needed constant injections and spent half his time in bed. We also know he was a reckless sex addict who once left British prime minister Harold Macmillan flabbergasted by asking: "How is it for you, Harold? I get terrible headaches if I don't have a woman for three days."

None of that takes away from his achievement. JFK's visit was the most exciting thing that had ever happened in independent Ireland and its legacy would be hard to exaggerate. When he left Shannon airport for the last time, Kennedy's parting words were, "This is not the land of my birth, but is the land for which I hold the greatest affection, and I certainly will come back in the spring time." In private he told friends that after serving two terms as president, he would like to end his career as the US ambassador to Ireland.

As we all know, he never lived to see that day and it was his sister Jean Kennedy Smith who served in the Phoenix Park between 1993 and 1998. This weekend, fire from the eternal flame at Kennedy's graveside will be used to light a new 'emigrant flame' at the quay in New Ross. The JFK era ended half a century ago – but the memories of his triumphant Irish homecoming glow as brightly as ever.