When Ireland woke up
Kennedy’s visit lifted us out of our suspicion of those who had been away. He seemed to drive away images of lonely figures leaving with a single suitcase
John F Kennedy lays a wreath at the statue of Commodore John Barry, with mayor of Wexford Thomas Byrne, minister of external affairs Frank Aiken and US ambassador to Ireland Matthew McCloskey
John F Kennedy arrives in Wexford in June 1963.
In June 1963, the month when John F Kennedy came to Ireland, memory moved from black and white, or strange dullness, to full technicolour.
I know that my teacher in the CBS in Enniscorthy then was a man from Kerry called Tommy Brick. I can see him walking back from the school to his lodgings on Court Street, but when I conjure up his face after 50 years, or even when I visualise his clothes, it all appears in something close to black and white.
My father taught in the CBS secondary school, and he already had holidays at the time of Kennedy’s visit to Wexford, but in the primary school we did not have holidays yet. I know that I was warned not to tell anyone that I was not coming to school the next day, but I have no memory of how we actually got from Enniscorthy to Wexford town on the day of Kennedy’s visit. My father could not drive. I am sure we did not take the bus or the train. Someone must have given us a lift.
The talk in the days before was about Wexford itself. If the tide was out when the president came along the quays, then he might see that there was rubbish or something unsightly in the water in the Crescent in front of the statue of Commodore Barry.
My father and other men often had talks about things that should be done, and I learned to keep quiet during those conversations which could be interminable. I am not sure that they did not discuss some way of dealing with the tides so the Crescent would be full with clean, fresh seawater as the President of the United States passed, but I don’t think this could really be true.
We brought a fold-up stool from home in case I would need to stand on it to get a better view. We stood close to the railway track across from the Ballast Office on the quays. It was the morning. There must have been crowds of people, but I have no clear memory of anyone else at all. I just know that at a certain moment a car, an open-topped car, came slowly around the corner going north and John F Kennedy was in the car. In my memory he is standing up. I don’t know whether I was standing on the stool or if someone had lifted me up to get a better view.
My memory of seeing him is totally sharp. He was smiling and waving and his skin was deeply tanned and his teeth were white. He seemed a picture of health and power and wealth and glamour. Since I was eight years of age, most adults seemed old, worn down by work and duty, or serious concerns. But Kennedy seemed young and bright and wonderfully alive. I suppose we cheered him, but I have no memory of any sound. And then the car must have moved on, but I have no memory of that either.
Later, we went to someone’s house and turned on the television. I am sure – could this be true? – that RTÉ showed film of what the road between Wexford and New Ross, Kennedy’s next destination, looked like, with no commentary or even music. We watched it, trying to imagine what it would look like through his eyes.
Some time afterwards a record came out, an EP, which was green in colour and which had a recording of some of Kennedy’s speeches, what he said in New Ross and Galway. What if his family had stayed? he asked in New Ross. He would be working in the factory there. Or what if they had not emigrated and de Valera had stayed in America? Then Kennedy would be president of Ireland and de Valera would be president of America.
My father had a story he often told. It was about a gravedigger’s son from Ireland who could not read or write and thus could not inherit his father’s job. Instead, he went to America, struck oil and became rich. One day he was asked to sign his name and said that he could not. “Here you are,” a man said, “one of the richest men in the world. How much richer would you be if you could sign your name?” The gravedigger’s son replied: “I would not be rich at all. I would be a gravedigger in Ireland.”
That idea of America as a land of glamour and opportunity was embedded in our minds. The lovely twang of the American accent, the size of American wealth, the idea of American optimism, the notion that Americans came in technicolour were all part of the Irish dream. You could emigrate to England and work in a factory and you could come home once a year. But you would never amount to much over there. But if, on the other hand, you emigrated to America, you could become anything. You might never come home, just send letters and dollars. But you could become rich, or even president.
In the life of Ireland, the idea of welcoming emigrants home has been part of public rhetoric for many generations.
But in Irish literature, in the dream-life of the country, the returned emigrant is viewed with irony and much suspicion. Not only in plays such as Brian Friel’s The Loves of Cass Maguire or Tom Murphy’s The House, but in a story such as Daniel Corkery’s Nightfall in which a man who comes home after many years away has this said about him: “I wish to God that old idiot would go back to where he came from.” Or the women in Benedict Kiely’s Homes on the Mountain who says: “Returned Americans are lost people. They live between two worlds. Their heads are in the clouds.” And there are other stories by writers such as George Moore, Máirtín Ó Cadhain and Bryan MacMahon that view the returned emigrant with a strange sadness or sourness.
John F Kennedy’s visit in June 1963 seemed to lift us out of our suspicion of those who had been away; he seemed in all his friendliness and power and glamour to drive away images of American wakes and lonely figures leaving with a single suitcase, or emigrants coming back in the summer talking about people and things that no one at home talked about any more.
In 2007, a short time before the historian Arthur Schlesinger, who was one of John F Kennedy’s advisers, died, I spoke to him about the plans they made in the White House in 1963 for Kennedy’s visit to Ireland. One of their concerns, he said, was Ireland’s backwardness. Kennedy and his team disapproved of the censorship laws in Ireland, Schlesinger told me, and they were appalled at the idea that James Joyce, for example, was not honoured in his own country.
Thus it was decided, he said, that Kennedy would deliberately quote James Joyce in his speech to the joint houses of the Oireachtas, as he would quote Yeats and Shaw. There is no evidence that anyone noticed it; indeed, during the euphoria of those days 50 years ago, it might have been possible to mention anyone’s name in a speech and win applause. But it was an interesting moment in the week in which Ireland woke up. It would have pleased the old exile himself, as he lay in his grave in Zurich, that he was finally being honoured in his own country by a returned exile who was president of the United States.