Monday 22 October 2018

The JFK Files: Renewed interest in the death of Ireland's favourite son

As conspiracy theorists exult over the much-­delayed release of the so-called JFK files, the guardians of John F Kennedy's legacy in New Ross are reflecting afresh on a time of real grief

Murder mystery: JFK and wife Jacqueline moments before Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Photo: Walt Cisco/Dallas Morning News
Murder mystery: JFK and wife Jacqueline moments before Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Photo: Walt Cisco/Dallas Morning News
JFK relaxing at sea in an undated picture. Picture: JFK Library/Reuters
Graham Clifford with tour guide Mary O'Donoghue Murphy at the Kennedy Homestead in Dunganstown, New Ross. Photo: Patrick Browne

Graham Clifford

The delicate beads, light to the touch, fall between my fingers. I can hardly believe what I'm holding. It's a summer's night in 2013 and in New Ross the finishing touches are being put to the Kennedy Homestead Museum.

Sitting at the kitchen table in the old Grennan home in Dunganstown with John F Kennedy's relation Patrick Grennan, we look through some of the memorabilia and artefacts which would form part of the Kennedy collection.

"They're the actual rosary beads President Kennedy had in his pocket on the day he was assassinated in Dallas in '63," explains Patrick.

They'd been given to Mary Ann Ryan, Patrick's aunt, in the White House on the evening of JFK's funeral by his widow Jacqueline Kennedy. Today they're safely encapsulated in a glass case at the Kennedy Homestead Museum, along with the small red zipped pouch in which they were kept.

JFK relaxing at sea in an undated picture. Picture: JFK Library/Reuters
JFK relaxing at sea in an undated picture. Picture: JFK Library/Reuters

Since the museum opened four years ago, thousands of visitors have filed through.

"It's really amazing how the interest in John F Kennedy and the Kennedy family endures," explains Mary O'Donoghue Murphy, the tour guide at the Kennedy Homestead.

"President Kennedy's visit to his ancestral home here in 1963 is perhaps the main area of interest. People love to see the little cup and saucer he drank from and the converted car seat he sat on in the old farm house, and hear the stories of that day."

Now as tens of thousands of documents are being released by the National Archives in the States in connection with President Kennedy's assassination, there is renewed interest in the murder investigation - not that the interest in JFK has ever really dissipated.

"About 30pc of our visitors are American, and visits here can be very emotional for people. Everyone has a John F Kennedy story. He touched so many lives," she adds. Mary, who lives just a few miles from the Kennedy Homestead, tells me that her very first childhood memory was of her mother's reaction to the news that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.

"I was four and I recall my mother hearing the news on the television. She started crying and ran out to the yard to tell my father. It was terrible for everyone around here because we felt so connected to him - he was one of our own."

Graham Clifford with tour guide Mary O'Donoghue Murphy at the Kennedy Homestead in Dunganstown, New Ross. Photo: Patrick Browne
Graham Clifford with tour guide Mary O'Donoghue Murphy at the Kennedy Homestead in Dunganstown, New Ross. Photo: Patrick Browne

As news filtered across the Atlantic that President Kennedy had died in Dallas - just five months after sharing tea and sandwiches with his cousins in New Ross - locals struggled to deal with the horrific developments.

There were few television sets in the New Ross area at the time, and locals gathered at various houses in the town to watch news bulletins and eventually the funeral.

It was Telefís Éireann broadcaster Charles Mitchell who was given the grim task of breaking the news that Ireland's favourite son was dead.

At 7.05pm on November 22, 1963, the nation was stunned into silence when the station broke into a sports programme to report that President Kennedy had been the victim of a shooting.

"We have just heard that an attempt has been made on President Kennedy's life in Dallas, Texas," the veteran newsreader said. "First reports say that he has been badly wounded."

Just 20 minutes later a visibly moved Mitchell came back on air to announce: "President Kennedy has been shot dead by an assassin in Dallas, Texas."

Mourning a loss

Masses were hastily arranged in the parish churches as people came to pay their respects to Mary Ryan and her family. Tears were shed for a man who lit up their rural area, who came home to the farm his great-grandfather Patrick Kennedy left just over a century before.

They asked: "How could anybody do this to our Jack Kennedy?"

Public reaction on the streets of Dublin was heartfelt too. "It's really stupid actually," one person told Radio Éireann. "Anybody that would really want to shoot a president who has done so much for us, and world affairs... what's going to be done now? His death is a real loss to the whole world, not just the United States."

A crying woman told reporters: "He was so good, he was good for everyone. He was so good, you could see it in his face. All I can say is the Lord have mercy on him."

Andy Minihan was the colourful town council leader in New Ross who welcomed President Kennedy to the town. JFK referred to him as 'Mr Mayor' and enjoyed Andy's playful antics upon their initial meeting. His son Mark tells me that his late father couldn't quite believe the news when it emerged from Dallas, and he recalls hearing the news himself.

"I was only 15 at the time. We used to go back into the local Christian Brothers School from six to eight o'clock in the evening to study. I was just leaving when I met a fella coming up the hill and he said 'isn't it terrible news about President Kennedy?'. I thought, there's a joke here somewhere - I waited for the punchline, but it didn't come. At about 8.20 my father came into town to use the telephone at the Royal Hotel to ring America, send telegrams and make a plan. The whole place was shell-shocked. I remember Andy was absolutely devastated. For him, and others, it was like a family member had been killed."

Flown to the funeral

Andy, a small-town businessman who was born in Skibbereen but raised in Glasgow, would attend the funeral on behalf of the town, and during his time in Washington spoke with Jacqueline Kennedy, Lyndon B Johnson - who would succeed JFK - as well as the President's brother Bobby. Also in attendance was Mary Ann Ryan, who represented the family at the funeral - her mother Mary was initially asked to travel but decided to let her younger daughter do so in her stead.

Mary Ann, who'd worked as a nurse in the Rotunda Hospital and had charmed the world media with her quiet unassuming manner upon President Kennedy's visit to the family homestead in June '63, found herself travelling with the then Taoiseach Éamon De Valera to Washington.

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 with the direct family; she sat beside Martin Luther King at the funeral ceremony.

And, as was Jacqueline Kennedy's wish, the Irish Army cadets performed a silent drill as her husband's coffin was lowered into the ground at Arlington cemetery.

As the weeks and months rolled by, Irish society appeared to focus more on mourning President Kennedy's death than becoming embroiled in the speculation about why he was shot down in his prime and by whom. But as time progressed, the questions and conspiracy theories eventually began to emerge. For Patrick Grennan, and President Kennedy's other relations in New Ross, the release of classified documents into the assassination will do little to change their lives.

"We wouldn't be any more or less interested in finding out what happened on that day in Dallas than anyone else, and I mean that respectfully," says Patrick Grennan. "What we're doing here is remembering the Kennedy family tree, President Kennedy's visits to Ireland, especially the visit in 1963 to my grandmother, and honouring the Kennedy family's positive contributions to the world."

But he tells Review that if the revelations help debunk some of the more outlandish conspiracy theories into JFK's death, then that would be something worthwhile.

"Sure everyone has a conspiracy theory into what happened," he says. "We have visitors coming regularly who tell us theirs. Some of those theories can be totally off the wall. So perhaps these files will set the record straight. That would be something…"

Back in the Kennedy Homestead Museum, I'm struck by a passage on the wall from the 'Undelivered Speech' which President Kennedy was due to give in Dallas that fateful day.

In it are the words: "We in this country, in this generation are, by destiny rather than choice, the watchmen on the walls of world freedom."

The question on the minds of people around the world now, and especially in the country of his ancestors, is can the walls which have protected the real story of his assassination and subsequent murder investigation finally be toppled?

@GrahamJClifford

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