When Kennedy euphoria swept the country
An Irishman’s Diary: He promised to return in springtime, as many Kerry emigrants had done
‘Some locals could recall at the time the horror of the departure by liner from Queenstown, now Cobh. All were familiar with tear-stained departures from Shannon, which some still called by its original name, Rineanna.’ Above, John F Kennedy, prepares to leave from Shannon in 1963. Photograph: Peter Thursfield
The flickering images on the black and white television screen in the corner of Brendan Allman’s shop at the foot of the Slieve Mish mountains on the Dingle peninsula relayed the unfolding story of a remarkable event in Irish history.
It was June 1963. President John Kennedy was in Galway, talking about the links between Ireland and the United States. The country was in a state of euphoria and it spread all the way to the far reaches of that part of Kerry, where hardly a household remained untouched by the grim history of forced emigration.
The great grandson of a Famine emigrant had made it to the White House and it was a cause of celebration. Kennedy, youthful, exuding glamour and a marvellous orator, was considered to be one of our own.
I was in the shop to collect a copy of the now defunct Irish Press for a teacher in the nearby two-roomed Derryquay national school. Dev’s paper in Dev’s fading Ireland. The country was emerging from the moribund 1950s and taoiseach Seán Lemass, escorting Kennedy to the various Dublin events, was leading a social and economic revolution.
Springfield, Massachusetts, was sometimes referred to at the time as the next parish in that part of Kerry, as wave after wave of emigration sapped it of its people. Several natives of the Blasket Islands, just off the western tip of the peninsula, settled there.
Kerry was not included in Kennedy’s itinerary. But he did visit the neighbouring counties of Cork and Limerick. More especially, he left from Shannon airport, with his emotional promise to return in the springtime, as so many Kerry exiles had done.
Some locals could recall at the time the horror of the departure by liner from Queenstown, now Cobh. All were familiar with tear-stained departures from Shannon, which some still called by its original name, Rineanna.
Fergal Tobin, in his book, The Best of Decades, Ireland in the 1960s, noted how, in all, over 400,000 Irish men and women emigrated between 1951 and 1961, “an enormous haemorrhage for such a sparsely populated country”.
At the start of the 1960s, the population of the 26 counties was smaller, after 40 years of independence, than it had been in the days of British rule in Ireland.
Kennedy himself, in his address to a joint sitting of the Oireachtas, observed how the early emigrants had arrived in America in a mixture of hope and agony. It was no wonder, he said, that James Joyce had described the Atlantic as bowl of bitter tears.
Some of my granduncles, uncles and cousins had joined the exodus to the United States. Dan O’Regan was a talented GAA footballer, winning an All-Ireland minor medal with Kerry in 1946 against a Dublin side that included the young Kevin Heffernan, a highly successful manager of the Dubs in the 1970s. Those who knew him at the time said he would have made the Kerry senior team had he stayed. He left for Chicago in the post-war gloom.
Another uncle, Patrick Allman, and his wife, Kitty Moriarty, emigrated to Boston in the 1950s and voted for Kennedy in 1960. In the 1970s and 1980s, I would meet them in Shannon and drive them to Kitty’s old family home in the Dingle peninsula when they came on holidays.
One glorious summer’s day, walking in the splendour of Inch beach, not far from the family farm where his uncles had left for Boston in the 1930s, I asked him if he ever regretted leaving. “No, Ireland had nothing to offer, not even hope not to mind a job,” he replied. “America rescued us and that was why Kennedy was special.”
Following his killing, Kennedy’s status grew. A colour portrait of the former president and his wife, Jacqueline, distributed by the Sunday Press, a sister paper of the Irish Press, took pride of place next to the pope in many Kerry households.
When Jacqueline married Aristotle Onassis, it was discreetly removed in some cases. Onassis was considered no replacement for Kennedy, one of our own, forever youthful and vibrant because of his early death.