An Irishman’s Diary: First newspaper in Ireland to print news of JFK’s death
‘The Evening Press had finished its run for the day, but the plates were still on the printing machines and could be restarted with a new page one. The Irish Press newsroom – true to its nature and tradition – had sprung into action to produce a front page and get it into the city centre.’ Above, President John F Kennedy is slumped down in the back seat after being fatally shot in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963. Jacqueline Kennedy leans over the president as a secret service agent stands on the bumper. Photograph: AP Photo/Ike Altgens
Among those who recently revealed where they were when one bullet in Dallas shook the world was Hugh O’Flaherty. The former Supreme Court judge recalled he was in the Irish Press newsroom on Burgh Quay in Dublin. The banging of the wire-room cat-flap as each Snap and Flash from the UPI and Reuters news agencies arrived still reverberates in his memory – as it does mine. We were both at the same flap as the story broke.
My job as copyboy – soon to be junior journalist – was to snatch every “take” of news as fast as I could and deliver it to the chief subeditor. Staff gathered from all over the building as the news spread and my job became messy as everybody sought to have a peek at the latest scrap of information. Hugh O’Flaherty was among those from “the top of the house” who joined the unbelieving throng around the flap as the news dropped through, line by terrible line.
The bulletins began cautiously. The “gunshot” might be just a scare or the noise of a backfiring car, but reality suddenly arrived in chilling snapshots as the cat-flap banging by the wire-room staff grew louder and longer. First, the motorcade scramble, the president slumping forward – and then the horrifying detail as the awful reality struck home – the blood-spattered Jackie Kennedy scrambling over the seat, the president’s car screeching away, the death announcement at the hospital.
The Evening Press had finished its run for the day, but the plates were still on the printing machines and could be restarted with a new page one. The Irish Press newsroom – true to its nature and tradition – had sprung into action to produce a front page and get it into the city centre.
Journalists, printers, machine-room men and newsboys were “rounded up” in nearby watering holes and taxis sent for key production staff. Those were the days when all stories had to be typeset by printers and then put through a whole tedious procedure that hadn’t changed for hundreds of years.
For a short while bedlam reigned, but soon everything snapped into place, the papers were coming off the presses and the waiting newsboys went charging up the quay and over O’Connell Bridge with massive bundles bearing the incredible headline in the biggest type size available “President Kennedy Assassinated”.
Reports afterwards told of men and women rushing from the cinema queues on O’Connell Street and Middle Abbey Street – right beside our fierce competitor, the Irish Independent – and grabbing the papers without paying; of people breaking down and crying; and even of those who believed the whole thing was a hoax.
And this on the same street where, barely five months previously, John F Kennedy had driven in triumph in the land of his forebears. It all defied belief.
Thirty years later, when I was editor of the Evening Press and looking for something interesting to mark the Kennedy anniversary, I hit on the idea of re-running the Kennedy edition front page, which I hadn’t seen since that fateful night. It had always been an iconic event in the paper’s folk memory and, in true newspaper culture, the heroics of that unforgettable night had grown greater over each passing year.
It should have been a formality as the group’s three newspapers and major editions were systematically filed in bound volumes in our own library. The normal Evening Press editions were there all right, but not the Kennedy edition. The Irish Press file was checked, just in case, as it was mostly the staff of that paper that had got the edition out – but no joy. As something totally out of the ordinary, it had slipped through the net, or, more accurately, the filing procedure. Staff members were asked in case anyone – or a friend or relation – had stored a souvenir copy away in a box or attic, but this also proved unsuccessful. The National Library was visited, but in vain. The last hope was to make a page-one plea to readers, but that also drew a blank.
The Evening Press was undoubtedly the first newspaper in Ireland to carry the news and one report in the aftermath of the assassination said it was behind only a few American newspapers and was the second in Europe to get the news on the street.
Sadly, however, the Kennedy edition seems to have vanished into history, just as the Evening Press and its sister papers did in due course.