When Camelot came to town
HISTORY: JFK in Ireland: Four Days that Changed a PresidentBy Ryan Tubridy, Collins, 302pp. £20
THE POET Robert Browning famously asked, “Did you once see Shelley plain, and did he stop and speak to you?” I did see John F Kennedy on his presidential visit to Ireland. He didn’t stop and speak to me, but as a young schoolboy I was happy that at least he waved in the general direction of myself and hundreds of others.
I was standing with my big brother at the corner of St Stephen’s Green and Leeson Street, in Dublin, as he swept past on his way to an official dinner at Iveagh House. My strongest impression was how incredibly tanned the man was, although it now seems the pigmentation had more to do with Addison’s disease than the rays of the sun.
We know a lot more now about Kennedy than we did then, of course. Not all of it is favourable, but no matter. Nothing can ever detract from the joy that this nation experienced in those magic four days in June 1963.
The impact of the visit can be gauged from the fact that Ryan Tubridy was not even born until 10 years after Kennedy had left these shores for the last time yet has been drawn to the subject and produced a book that brings the episode vividly back to life.
To borrow a phrase from another prominent broadcaster, Tubridy is a good writer, not a great writer, but it is the photographs that form the primary merit of this beautifully produced volume. Page after page they come: there is the smiling president, here are the adoring crowds. Had WB Yeats been alive he could have written again, as he did of 1916, “All is changed, changed utterly.”
The subtitle of the book suggests that his Irish visit changed Kennedy in some fundamental way, and a moving handwritten letter from his widow, Jacqueline, to President Éamon de Valera that is reproduced in full suggests this may well have been the case. “That trip meant more to him than any other in his life,” she wrote on January 22nd, 1964, two months to the day since the assassination. “He called me every night of it and would tell me all that had passed in the day.” I recall a conversation with the late Frank McCourt in which he said about a subsequent visit by President Clinton: “A needy man met a needy people.” The same could perhaps be applied to Kennedy.
Whatever about the man, the people were certainly needy in psychological terms. National self-confidence was in short supply: the Irish felt like second-class citizens skulking in the wings of the international stage. What better tonic than a visit from the most powerful figure in the world, who also happened to have recent Irish forebears and to have overcome religious prejudice to become the first Catholic in charge of the White House?
Poring over the photographs is like going through a family album. Clearly, many people had put on their Sunday best to greet the president. You find yourself gazing at length, for example, at a shot of the crowd dispersing after Kennedy passed through O’Connell Street in Dublin. The men are wearing collar-and-tie; some of the women are trying out the Jackie look. Where are the junkies of today?
Kennedy had only just come from a divided Germany where he made his stirring “ Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner) speech at the Wall, perhaps the greatest affront to human liberty ever constructed. But when it came to partition in Ireland he was very keen to stay away from the subject, as Tubridy makes clear, in case he might offend the United States’ British allies.
The president, and more particularly his entourage, seem to have regarded the Irish trip initially as a jolly that would copperfasten Irish-American support for the next year’s re-election campaign. They can hardly have been prepared for the outpouring of adulation and hero-worship that ensued.
This newspaper wrote at the time that it was the first visit by the head of an “important” state since independence. There were other firsts, such as newsreel and TV cameras being allowed to film proceedings in the Dáil chamber.
As they arrived for Kennedy’s speech, the Civil War opponents WT Cosgrave and Sean T O’Kelly exchanged friendly greetings in public for the first time in decades.
There was one bad moment: the notorious garden party at Áras an Uachtaráin, where members of the native establishment forgot their manners and turned into an unruly mob, surging around the distinguished visitor. Anthony Cronin has written in these pages of how the writers Brian O’Nolan, aka Flann O’Brien/Myles na Gopaleen, and Patrick Kavanagh felt shut out because they were not invited to a function where some of the actual guests “rushed at the defenceless Kennedy and almost tore the shirt off his back”.
As with all such state visits there is a certain amount of wearisome palaver in the speeches of welcome, but Kennedy’s oratorical standard was always high, and it is impossible not to be moved when reading his words at Limerick on his departure, when he quoted, or rather misquoted, a poem by Gerald Griffin and said: “I am going to come back and see old Shannon’s face again.” A placard displayed in the crowd summed it all up: “Johnny I hardly knew ye.”
Deaglán de Bréadún is an Irish TimesPolitical Correspondent and author of T he Far Side of Revenge: Making Peace in Northern Ireland