Irishwoman's diary: an audience with a president
An Irishwoman’s Diary: John F Kennedy’s surprise greeting in Limerick
John F Kennedy, accompanied by the mayor of Limerick, Frances Condell, walks towards the platform at Greenpark Racecourse, Limerick.
Mae Leonard with fellow members of Limerick Corporation staff, after President John F Kennedy had left Limerick.
It was June 1963 when the Frances Condell, Mayor of Limerick stood before us and announced, “He’s coming”.
There were stars dancing in her eyes and her cheeks were dimpled to capacity. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, president of the United States of America, had been persuaded to include Limerick on his Irish itinerary. And now there was breathless amount of work to be done. We, the staff of Limerick Corporation, were suddenly tossed into a whirlpool of activity. The running of the city had to be put aside. It was all hands on deck.
In a matter of minutes the venue for the president’s reception was chosen – Greenpark Racecourse was the only place large enough to accommodate the expected crowds. Engineers and maintenance workers were detailed to design and construct a platform worthy of this most powerful of men. The old reliable department store, Cannock’s, long gone now, was given the task of decorating that platform. The president’s Co Limerick cousins, the Fitzgeralds, had to be contacted by telephone – there was no time to post gilt-edged invitations. The city councillors’ ceremonial robes were taken out and dusted down.
The ancient, not to mention very valuable, mayoral chain was retrieved from the vault and the silver ceremonial maces had to be polished.
And then there was the gift. What do you give to a man who has everything? The mayor insisted that it had to be something synonymous with Limerick. But what?
A Limerick lace christening robe made by the nuns at the Good Shepherd Convent was the choice for the Kennedys’ expected baby. My mission was to organise packaging worthy of such a delicate gift and I was dispatched to the nuns at the Presentation Convent. In a parlour full of bees-waxed furniture, the reverend mother and three nuns constructed a white quilted box.
It was, indeed, a worthy receptacle for the delicate lace christening gown but it needed a bit of colour. “A bow?” I suggested and no sooner said than done – a lavish pink satin bow was fixed to the centre of cover.
On Saturday morning, dressed in my new tweed suit, I was back at my desk dealing with everyday Limerick Corporation inquiries. Would I get a chance to see the president? My boss shook his head, saying, “Somebody has to man the phones.”And in that vast empty building, I was deserted and on the verge of tears, when suddenly the big front door swung open. It was the city accountant.
“Not going to the ball, Cinderella?”
“No sir, the phones.”
“Ah. I see. Well, let me be your fairy godfather. I left a bundle of nametags in my office for the seats on the platform. I need someone to put them in place. Could you possibly . . .?” Could I ever?
A VIP car zoomed me up O’Connell Street, swung around the Crescent and into Greenpark Racecourse right to the base of the president’s platform. My fairy godfather caught my arm. “You have 10 minutes to get this done then disappear into the crowd.”
I didn’t need second bidding.
But as I moved along the rows of seats, sticking name tags on each one, suddenly there was a chug-chug-chugging sound that got louder and louder. Two helicopters hovered overhead. The mayor led red-cloaked councillors to line up on both sides of the red carpet leading from the platform to the helicopter pad. I made for the steps at the back of the platform to lose myself in the crowd as I had been instructed.
Just as I reached the top of the steps, a trench-coated guy halted me in my tracks.
“Sorry Ma’am, nobody moves off this stand until the president does.” I paused. My head buzzed with fright. I had been warned to disappear. Now I was very visible. I did not know what to do. My fairy godfather had vanished.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy climbed the steps of the platform in Limerick to find this office-junior (me) the only one up there to greet him.
He stopped. I was rooted to the spot as I felt the full-force blast of that famous Kennedy charisma in his broad smile. I still rue the fact that I was wearing gloves when he reached for, and shook my hand before he stepped forward to receive a resounding céad míle fáilte from the people of Limerick. The mayor, aldermen and councillors of Limerick Corporation followed him and sat on the tagged seats.
Still in a bit of a daze, I made for the steps at the back of the platform, but that trench-coat blocked me once more. There are pictures of that historic day when John F Kennedy, stood on that platform in Limerick. There is a little shadowy figure at the back – that’s me. I had a birds-eye view of the president as he moved forward to meet his Fitzgerald relatives.
In the sunshine and the joy of that day nobody could predict that six months later he would be dead and the Limerick lace christening robe would never be worn.