When JFK was shot

An Irishman’s Diary: Assassination a personal trauma for most Irish Catholics

‘It added hugely to the sense that we had finally made it in this world. Here was incontrovertible proof that we had beaten dungeon, fire, sword and famine. We had what it takes. We had made it after all. Our pride in him, and ourselves, over those four glorious days the previous June filled us to overflowing.’  US President John F Kennedy  at a tea party in  Dunganstown, Co Wexford, in June, 1963.   Photograph: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

‘It added hugely to the sense that we had finally made it in this world. Here was incontrovertible proof that we had beaten dungeon, fire, sword and famine. We had what it takes. We had made it after all. Our pride in him, and ourselves, over those four glorious days the previous June filled us to overflowing.’ US President John F Kennedy at a tea party in Dunganstown, Co Wexford, in June, 1963. Photograph: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Fri, Nov 22, 2013, 01:00

I was a small boy then. A young woman who stayed next door came into our kitchen in tears. A new teacher in town, Kay Fitzmaurice was going out with Eamonn Curley, a boarder in our house. We kept boarders then. Our house was like a railway station in those years, with the pub, boarders, and the six of
us.

That November evening when Kay came into the kitchen in distress I knew something was very wrong. Already aware that the path of true love rarely ran smooth, I could see that this was different. Then Kay and my mother, both in tears, told us President John F Kennedy had been shot dead. I felt the breath go out of my existence.

Months earlier I had savoured the euphoria of my elders as JFK inspired adulation on his visit here. By then initiated into a version of our history, I felt deep pride that a man from an Irish Catholic background had become president of the most powerful country in the world.

It added hugely to the sense that we had finally made it in this world. Here was incontrovertible proof that we had beaten dungeon, fire, sword and famine. We had what it takes. We had made it after all. Our pride in him, and ourselves, over those four glorious days the previous June filled us to overflowing.

I remembered my own pride in his bravery the year before when he faced down the Soviets. It seemed the world was about to end. Coming home from school one evening that October, I bit into a berry on a hawthorn bush to see what it tasted like. The bitterness seized my mouth and as I spat and spat I decided that was what the end of the world would taste like. But
the end of the world didn’t happen.

So his assassination five months later was a personal trauma for most Irish Catholics. It was my first experience of grief.

On hearing of JFK’s assassination I was reminded of my grandfather. A while before he had been playing a slow air on the concert flute when tears ran down his face. I never saw him cry before, so I cried too. Suddenly alert, he tousled my hair and said, “It’s alright, nothing at all . . . just Parnell.” I didn’t know who he was talking about.

He had been playing The Blackbird of Avondale, a song about Charles Stewart Parnell, who died in 1891. My grandfather had been seven then and the tears he carried through his life for the Uncrowned King of Ireland were those of his parents’ generation. With the death of Parnell so much hope died too.

In my house, the assassination of JFK had a similar effect. Our adults were heartbroken. We had no television, so my parents watched the funeral in Gallagher’s, two doors down. The only good that came of it all was that my father bought our first television that Christmas.

For many in Ireland the murder of JFK reinforced an entrenched fatalism to which those of us from a Catholic background on this island are forever prone. We were, it seemed again, forever destined to be among this world’s hewers of wood and drawers of water. And, should we venture to put our head above that station, it too would be blown away as with JFK, the only Irish American Catholic to become president of the US.

His assassination struck a deep blow to the psyche of the majority in Ireland who shared his background and who had felt, with his election as president, that at last – at long, long last – we Catholic Irishry were finally taking our place among the nations of this earth.

Those bullets in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963 caused us to stumble badly in our fledgling steps towards a new world, led by Seán Lemass. There was recovery, of course, but that too has since been blown apart by reckless bankers and indolent regulators.

And so a familiar fatalism dwells among us again on this island. It is probably why, while others have raged against austerity, we take it on the chin. It seems we believe it to be our destiny and that “The Vale of Tears” should remain our home address. JFK: RIP.

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