By Jamie O’Keeffe
The late Derek Davis was often a scene-stealer, something he’d joke was probably inevitable given his size.
Holywood, County Down’s best-known export before Rory McIlroy, all-rounder Davis was already a familiar face here when he made himself known to Irish-Americans the world over on the June Bank Holiday Sunday of 1984.
Appointed MC for Ronald Reagan’s visit to Ballyporeen — traced as being the U.S. President’s ancestral homeplace — Davis was in his element; this despite the fact that, following a month-long drought, the heavens decided to open for the two hours the Illinois native was feted in Ireland’s Golden Vale.
The unassuming former B-movie actor might have been the world’s most powerful politician, bar none, but he was almost overshadowed by Davis, as the pair swapped pleasantries on the rain-splattered platform.
In arranging the visit, the Department of Foreign Affairs needed someone to hold the stage and work the teeming crowd. The local organising committee asked Davis, and after clearing it with his RTÉ bosses, he was available.
Davis was in his comfort zone from the off, combining ‘waffle’ and running commentary to keep the hordes and international press corps entertained, as they waited impatiently for the in-demand guest of honour.
With his customary bonhomie and paunchy punchlines, he kept Reagan smiling and had both the live and TV audience in stitches.
It wasn’t all ‘céad míle fáilte’ and chuckles, mind. There was considerable tension in the air too. A journalist by profession, Davis was fully tuned in to the strong anti-American foreign policy sentiment here; a chorus led by the Catholic bishops and the commentariat’s criticism of what was happening in Central America with the blessing of the White House.