Con McGrath recalls the U.S. President’s visit to Tipperary in June, 1984


When President Ronald, and First Lady Nancy Reagan visited Ireland in 1984, it was 21 years since President Kennedy made his memorable visit in 1963.
Interestingly in the guard of honour for President Reagan when he arrived at Shannon Airport was Pte. Jimmy Maher, of Clogheen, Co. Tipperary; whose late father Paddy Maher, was on the guard of honour which had received President Kennedy.

Growing up, and even into adulthood, Ronald Reagan was not fully aware of his Irish ancestry, as he was to say in the village square of Ballyporeen on June 3, 1984, “You see, I didn’t know much about my family background – not because of a lack of interest, but because my father was orphaned before he was six years old. And now thanks to you and the efforts of good people who have dug into the history of a poor immigrant family, I know at last whence I came. And this has given my soul a new contentment.”
Following his Tipperary trip, a full report was written by Wendy Flynn for the front page of The Tipperary Star newspaper; from which many of the following details are taken.

When President Reagan and the First Lady emerged from Marine One helicopter at Ballyporeen GAA pitch; Mr Martin Neville, chairman of the local Community Council stepped forward to welcome them to the village for the two hour visit, which proved to be the climax of the Presidential stay in Ireland.
Fr. Eanna Condon, C.C., Councillor Con Donovan, Councillor Ned Brennan, chairman, and Mr Seamus Hayes, South Tipperary county manager, were also among the first to meet the Reagans.
Locals who had lined the streets from early morning greeted the couple with unqualified warmth and the occasion was as intimate and relaxed as a 2,000 strong security force and a jostling contingent of journalists, photographers and camera crew would allow.

The villagers were not overawed by the proceedings, and they deliberately kept pomp and ceremony to a minimum. They treated the President with respect and dignity but with a familiarity which came from the knowledge that he was ‘one of their own’.

Their sense of ease and familiarity in receiving the dignitaries was nicely illustrated by Fr. John Murphy’s parting comment to the First Lady, which will surely go down in the annals of Ballyporeen. As he shook hands with Nancy he said: “Goodbye Missus”, as if for all the world he was talking to a neighbour who had dropped in for a chat. The First Lady couldn’t but respond to the disarming simplicity of the priest and the requisite plastic media smile was replaced with a smile of genuine warmth.
“God Bless,” said Fr. Murphy as the couple left the parish priest’s house and walked towards the church.

The ceremony attended by President Reagan and the 350 local parishioners, was only fifteen minutes long but it was considered by many to have been the most moving aspect of the visit.
One hundred and fifty-six years ago, President Reagan’s great-grandfather, Michael, was christened in this tiny village church, and on Sunday the congregation commemorated the event with a symbolic baptismal service which involved the immersion of the Paschal Candle in the baptismal font.

The Reagans were very impressed by the young choir of local girls who sang a selection of Irish hymns, and even joined in the chorus of Seinn Alleluia.
Leaving the church, the U.S. Secret Service kept the locals back, only to see the President himself break the ranks and reach out to shake hands with hundreds.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own Summer Special