From November 2013, the 50th anniversary of the death of JFK

By Gerry Breen


JOHN F. KENNEDY was loved by the Irish people and his assassination during his visit to Dallas, Texas, on 22nd November, 1963, caused a wave of shock in Ireland, the land of his ancestors, and an unprecedented outpouring of grief on the death of a president who had, less than six months previously, received a rapturous welcome during his emotional visit to his homeland.

At the conclusion of his visit, as he prepared to leave from Shannon Airport, President Kennedy described Ireland as a very special place, and he went on to recite some lines from a poem which President deValera’s wife had quoted for him. ‘I wrote down the words,’ he said, ‘because I thought they were so beautiful’: This is the Shannon’s brightly glancing stream, Brightly gleaming, silent in the morning beam, Oh, the sight entrancing, Thus returns from travels long, Years of exile, years of pain, To see old Shannon’s face
again, O’er the waters dancing.’ 

Then, to the delight of the attendance, he concluded with a promise. ‘I am going to come back and see old Shannon’s face again,’ he told them, ‘and I am taking, as I go back to America, all of you with me.’ 

The President’s remarks were brief, but they were full of feeling and they brought a lump to the throats of his listeners who fervently hoped there would only be a short interval before the next visit of this smiling, vivacious and charismatic leader who had captured the hearts of the Irish. 

It was not to be. President Kennedy was unable to fulfill his promise because, within months, he was gunned down in Dallas, and now, fifty years later, the memories of that fateful day still have power to stir the emotions. 

Around the world there was a stunned reaction to the assassination, and in Ireland the news shocked the nation. Men and women wept openly. People gathered to share the news, and, in some areas, traffic came to a halt as the news spread from one car to another.

The event left a lasting impression, and most people vividly remembered where they were when they heard about the death of the President.

Prayers were offered in churches and books of condolence were opened for people to sign. Memorial services were held to allow people to express their grief, and people mourned as they would for the loss of a family member.

In a way, it is easy to understand President Kennedy’s hold on the affections of the Irish people. Emigration was always a painful reality for the majority of Irish families.

Leaving family and friends to try to make a new life in a strange land is never easy, but it is difficult for us today to realise the anguish involved in times gone by.

In the old days, the parting was, in all too many cases, for life. It was like a death in the family. If children were going to America or Australia, chances were they would never return.

That’s the way it was when President Kennedy’s paternal great – JFK – the triumph and Fifty years after the death of a grandfather, Patrick Kennedy, had emigrated to Boston from Dunganstown, near New Ross in Co. Wexford, in 1848 during the Great Famine.

The Irish got a very cold reception in Boston, where the Mayor, Theodore Lyman, speaking as the official voice of Boston, expressed his feelings in a way that left little room for doubt.

He declared that the Irish ‘are a race that will never be infused with our own, but, on the contrary, would always remain distant and hostile’.

The plight of Irish immigrants received little sympathy, but the Irish hadn’t come through poverty and famine to be second-class citizens of America. They set up their own power base – in politics.

Within a generation, they had established a political nursery in which a future President of the United States was nurtured.

At the age of twenty-five, John F. Kennedy’s father, Joe Kennedy became the youngest bank president in America, and he went on to amass a huge fortune from a wide variety of business ventures.

However, in spite of his great wealth and high profile as a businessman, the social acceptance which he also desired proved very elusive. When he applied for membership of the exclusive Cohasset Country Club, the summer hideaway of the Boston elite, he was blackballed.

Many people believe it was slights like that which fuelled his ambitions to have his sons occupy high political office. Whatever the reason, it is certain that he was the driving force in propelling his son, John F.
Kennedy, up the political ladder, and his efforts were crowned with success when John F. was elected President of America in November, 1960. It was a great day for the Irish.

Later when the President visited Ireland, he told his relatives: ‘When my greatgrandfather came to America and my grandfather was growing up, the Irish Americans had a song about the familiar sign which went ‘No Irish Need Apply’.

He then said: ‘In 1960, the American people took the sign down from the last place it was still hanging – the door of the White House’.

On Thursday, 19th January, 1961, the eve of the inauguration of the newly-elected President, a fierce storm put the celebrations in jeopardy.

Nearly eight inches of snow fell and icy winds caused the snow to drift, resulting in traffic jams. On the big day, Kennedy, in spite of the cold, removed his overcoat before standing to take the oath of office.

He was immensely proud of his Irish ancestry and even took his oath of office using the Fitzgerald family bible, which had been brought to the United States from Ireland by his forebears.

His inaugural address was preceded by a contribution from the eighty-six year old poet Robert Frost.

John F. Kennedy took only sixteen minutes to read his address of 1,355 words, an address which has been hailed as one of the most moving speeches ever made by a United States President.

It was a speech which fired the imagination and offered exciting promises of a new era in which ideals would be valued and friend and foe alike would be brought together in a partnership to make the world a better place for everyone. 

Fifty years later, the speech is still remembered by people all over the world. One of the best remembered phrases in the address is: ‘…ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’

The newly-elected President concluded an inspiring address with these words: ‘My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
‘Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.’ 

Despite the freezing cold, more than twenty thousand people had gathered to hear the address, and it was estimated that as many as a million people turned out in the streets of Washington for the three-hour inaugural parade which was reviewed by the President.

It looked like the newly-elected President had it all – youth, film-star looks, pedigree and money. He was a very special person – smart and popular with ideas and enthusiasm that made it seem that nothing was impossible. 

Irish people everywhere were justifiably proud when, at the age of 43 years, John Fitzgerald Kennedy became the youngest and the first Catholic President to be elected in the United States.

During his third year in office, Kennedy decided to embark on a European tour, which would include a visit to Ireland.

The news that the President of the United States was going to visit his ancestral home in Dunganstown, Co. Wexford, in June, 1963, caused a huge stir in Ireland. The vast majority of Irish-Americans were thrilled, but there were some who were not very impressed by the idea.

One of these was Kenneth O’Donnell, the White House Appointments Secretary and supervisor of JFK’s schedule.

He told the President: ‘You’ve got all the Irish votes in this country that you’ll ever get. If you go to Ireland, people will say it’s just a pleasure trip.’

Kennedy’s response was: ‘That’s exactly what I want!’

Before coming to Ireland, the President visited Berlin where it was estimated that 1.5 million of the city’s total population of 2.2 million turned out to greet him.

Standing before the Berlin City Hall, he spoke out strongly of freedom’s power in the face of communism. ‘All free men’, he declared, ‘wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words Ich bin ein Berliner.’

Even though he had been coached in the phrase during the flight to
Berlin, Kennedy got it wrong. He should have said: Ich bin Berliner.
What he did say could also have meant ‘I am a doughnut’!

It didn’t matter. The Berliners certainly didn’t hold it against him.

He was given a rapturous reception. After Berlin, the President spent a
magical three days in Ireland, and Arthur Schlesinger Jnr., unofficial
historian of the Kennedy years, has written: ‘I imagine that he was never
easier, happier, more involved and detached, more completely himself
than during this blissful interlude of homecoming.’

He was given celebrity treatment in Ireland, and in his exuberance, he climbed out of his car to greet the thousands who turned out to see him and almost caused heart attacks amongst his Secret Service detail.

When the President’s helicopter set down in Wexford’s G.A.A. grounds, hundreds of well-wishers were waiting to greet him.

A choir of 300 boys sang The Boys of Wexford, a ballad commemorating the insurrection of 1798. The President left his bodyguards to join with the boys in singing the chorus.

Later he was taken on a sentimental journey to the port of New Ross from where his greatgrandfather had set sail for America back in 1848. 

Thousands had gathered to greet him in New Ross and in a speech at the quayside, the President said: ‘When my great-grandfather left here to become a cooper in East Boston, he carried nothing with him except two things – a strong religious faith and a strong desire for liberty. ‘I am glad to say,’ continued the President, ‘that all of his grandchildren have valued that inheritance.’ 

At nearby Dunganstown, President Kennedy visited the home of his ancestors. There he met fifteen of his cousins and, with a teacup in his hand, he said: ‘I want to drink a cup of tea to all those Kennedys who went and all those Kennedys who stayed.’

When it was time to leave, it was notable that the President was emotional. One of the highlights of his visit was his address to a joint session of the Oireachtas.

‘I am deeply honoured to be your guest in the free Parliament of a free Ireland’, he told the assembled. Deputies and Senators. ‘If this nation had achieved its present political and economic stature a century or so ago, my great-grandfather might never have left New Ross, and I might, if fortunate, be sitting down there with you. Of course, if your own President (Eamonn De Valera) had never left Brooklyn, he might be standing up here instead of me.

‘This elegant building, as you know, was once the property of the Fitzgerald family, but I have not come here to claim it. Of all the new relations I have discovered on this trip, I regret to say that no one has yet found any link between me and a great Irish patriot, Lord Edward Fitzgerald.

Lord Edward, however, did not like to stay here in his family home ‘because’, as he wrote to his mother, ‘Leinster House does not inspire the brightest ideas.’ ‘That was a long time ago, however. It has also been said by some that a few of the features of this stately mansion served to inspire similar features in the White House in Washington. Whether this is true or not, I know that the White House was designed by James Hoban, a noted Irish-American architect, and I have no doubt that he believed, by incorporating several features of the Dublin style, he would make it more homelike for any President of Irish descent.

It was a long wait, but I appreciate his efforts. ‘There is also an unconfirmed rumour that Hoban was never fully paid for his work on the White House. If this proves to be true, I will speak to our Secretary of the Treasury about it, although I hear this body is not particularly interested in the subject of revenue.

‘I am proud to be the first American President to visit Ireland during his term of office, proud to be addressing this distinguished assembly, and
proud of the welcome you have given me. My presence and your welcome, however, only symbolise the many and the enduring links which have bound the Irish and the Americans since the
earliest days.’

When he was asked what was the highlight of his trip to Ireland, the President said it was the Memorial Service at Arbour Hill which he attended prior to addressing the joint session of the Dail and Seanad.

At Arbour Hill he reviewed a guard of honour, laid a wreath and read some of the Proclamation of the Republic of Ireland.

The President was so impressed by the military cadets that he asked for a film of the Guard of Honour drill movements to be sent to him.

When he returned to America, he suggested that a similar ceremonial drill should be introduced at the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington.

There is no doubt that President Kennedy had a deep love for Ireland and his Irish connections. When leaving from Shannon Airport, he said: ‘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.’

Unfortunately, that was not to be. At the close of many of his election campaign speeches, the President had often quoted from the Robert Frost poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.’

It was in pursuit of one of those promises that he travelled to Dallas. Governor John Connolly had issued an official invitation to the President to visit Texas, and had asked if Jackie Kennedy could come along as well. It was thought that she was unlikely to accompany her husband, because she had declined to take part in his campaigns since the 1960 primaries.

However, she surprised everyone when she announced that she planned to campaign with him and would do anything to help to get her husband re-elected as President.

The scene was set for one of the most infamous moments in history. For the motorcade to the Dallas Trade Mart, the Kennedys and Connollys rode together in the open convertible. It had been suggested
that they should use a bubbletop, but John Kennedy explained that the people needed to see the President and First Lady clearly.

The motorcade proceeded under a blazing sun, with the temperature at 76 degrees. Spectators thronged the route, and Governor Connolly’s wife remarked: ‘Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.’ ‘No, you can’t’, replied the President.

Then, at 12.30 p.m., the shots rang out. One bullet passed through the President’s back and throat and then a second bullet smashed into the back of his head.

As the car sped to Parkland Hospital, President Kennedy slumped in his wife’s lap, his blood splattering her skirt.

The President was rushed into the trauma bay within minutes, and the doctors did all they could, but the President was pronounced dead at 1 o’clock. The date was 22nd November, 1963.

The world was stunned by the news and the people of Ireland were devastated. The 35th President of the United States had been in office for only three years, but, under his presidency, there was great economic expansion, the creation of the Peace Corps, the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis, Civil Rights reform and a renewed commitment to the space programme.

On November 25th, the day of the President’s funeral, there was almost universal mourning for a charismatic leader who had still much to offer. Three letters were included in the casket containing the
remains of the President. His daughter Caroline expressed her love and said she would miss her daddy.

Jackie Kennedy helped John Jnr., to make his childish scribbles and her own letter began: ‘My Darling Jack.’ Jackie led the funeral procession, flanked by the President’s brothers, Teddy and Bobby. Directly behind the horse-drawn caisson there was a black riderless horse, symbolising the lost leader, and the Irish Guards performed complex military drills as they marched, while four drummers beat out a steady cadence.

Following the Pontifical Requiem Mass in traditional Latin, at which Richard Cardinal Cushing presided, the funeral proceeded to Arlington, where a twenty-one gun salute was fired. Jackie received the folded American flag and she and Bobby Kennedy lit the eternal flame.

There were numerous tributes to President Kennedy in the days and weeks following the assassination, and it was generally acknowledged that he had filled the office of the most powerful political figure in the world with grace and style.

Now fifty years after the life of the 35th President of the United States was cruelly ended by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas, millions still mourn for what might have been, and Ireland remembers those magical days in June, 1963, when John F. Kennedy lifted the spirits and captured the minds and hearts of the nation. ■