A window of opportunity
The Ireland of 1963 got more than a day out. A generation was introduced to the dynamism of the US
Nora Owen: I was in UCD and it would be many years before I got involved in politics but even then I sensed that President Kennedy's visit would change things in Ireland.
My uncle Joe worked for the Revenue Commissioners and his office was on a second floor on O’Connell Street in Dublin.
Once we heard Kennedy would be coming down O’Connell Street, myself and my sisters Una (20), Catherine (17) and Joan (14) contacted our uncle to see if we could all pile into his office and watch the cavalcade. Luckily there wasn’t a problem, and so a bunch of our family, including my mother, Kitty and my Aunt Mollie, gathered in the office where we had a super view.
Every upstairs window in every office and shop was filled with people hours before the actual drive-through and the excitement was palpable. This was the most thrilling event that I could remember in my 18 years. From our vantage point, we had a clear view of Kennedy – his huge smile and his great head of hair.
I was in UCD and it would be many years before I got involved in politics but even then I sensed that this visit would change things in Ireland. For many students and young people, the US became a place they would go to work in the summers or move to for work after qualifying – it was a moment of real awakening to young people about the US.
We all knew from our history that people had gone off on coffin ships during the famine and small numbers had continued to emigrate in the early 20th century, but here was a dynamic, glamorous young US president who was Irish coming to Ireland at a time that we could badly do with investment from rich America. I believe this visit was hugely significant in identifying Ireland as a place for investment.
The visit was covered very extensively on Telefís Éireann and I have memories of people standing outside TV shop windows watching the pictures from Wexford, Limerick, Shannon and elsewhere. People gathered in the houses of neighbours lucky enough to own a TV.
We all fell in love with JFK during that visit and because of this there is hardly a person in Ireland who cannot remember where they were when they heard the horrific and tragic news that he had been shot. I was getting ready for my first dress dance when I heard a cry from my sister, Una, that Kennedy had been shot. We all cried and then I went to the dance where the only topic of conversation was the tragedy.
Nora Owen is a former minister for justice and is now a presenter of Midweek on TV3