Watching the president’s back
Pat Poland remembers the day he and his comrades in the AFS were tasked with protecting the president
Pat Poland, in the middle of the back row, with fellow AFS members who performed fire protection duties during President Kennedy’s helicopter take-off from Marina Park (now Kennedy Park), Cork, in June 1963.
Pat Poland with the ‘Tin Lid’ Auxiliary Fire Service helmet that he wore aged 17 on the day JFK visited Cork. Photograph: Provision / Michael O’Mahony
I had only just done my Leaving Cert in May of 1963 and I was in the Auxiliary Fire Service. It was like the equivalent of the old FCA. Because the fire brigade was small at that stage, when JFK arrived in Collins Barracks in Cork, the main unit was tasked with the landing. After his visit, he took off from near the three-cornered field by Victoria Road, which is now called Kennedy Park. We were tasked to provide the fire cover at the time of his take-off. I was about 17 years old at the time and ended up very close to the president. We couldn’t break ranks because we had to be there next to the fire engine in case anything happened. We had been training for some time beforehand on foam application, in case of a mishap with one of the helicopters.
Our equipment was pretty primitive to be honest. We had no two-way radios. An uncle of mine was home from America that year and gave me a small transistor radio, which was an absolute novelty. We had it tuned into Radio Éireann and could listen to the whole visit. So we knew when President Kennedy was leaving City Hall and we could get the whole thing on the radio.
JFK was our hero, being Irish American. We were yards from him. I had my little Brownie camera and was hoping he would look in my direction as he went up the steps. He turned his back to where we were and so I just got a shot of his back.
We were there since about 9.30 that morning and were all psyched up in case anything happened. We missed out on the whole cavalcade coming down Summer Hill and down through town. We only saw it on the news later on RTÉ, but I was happy and at least I managed to get a few photos of the day to go with the memories.
(In conversation with Brian O’Connell)