2023 Grateful 27: JFK in Ireland

‘Why did you never make a play for my son’, she asked me, all four foot ten of her seventy-seven years looking up at my five foot four and thirty-five.

How do you tell a doting mother that her son simply isn’t your type when you know hand on heart that you don’t have a type and that he isn’t into girls anyway?

He didn’t pass my test, I told her.

He’s never failed a test in his life, she replied starchly.

Well, he failed mine, I said.

I asked him which he remembered most vividly – where he was when JFK was shot or where he was when Elvis died. When he said JFK, I told her,  I knew he was too old for me.

I have no recollection of JFK’s assassination. I wasn’t yet walking the earth. But I remember being in St Joseph’s Hotel in Fetherd-on-Sea, Co. Wexford when news of Elvis’s demise hit the world.

She was happy with that.

My friend, her son, died a few years back. I miss him. He was a good friend.

I was reminded of him yet again, when another friend, the inimitable Des Nix, posted his reflection on JFK’s visit to Ireland in 1963, to another part of Co. Wexford: New Ross.

He’s graciously agreed to this repost.

The Day We Spent in Camelot

It was the best of times, the best of times. Only better.

1963 might have been perfect, if only they’d cut it off in mid-November, after the Beatles brought their “LoveMeDoodles” to Dublin.

The world was smiling again after the dismal post-war ‘fifties. Martin Luther King was dreaming of a bright new world for his people. JFK had just saved us from a nuclear conflict which might have annihilated us all. And he was promising to put a man on the moon – by the end of the decade, mar ea.

And now, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, that self-same super-hero, the world’s most powerful and charismatic man, was coming to New Ross to rejoice at being one of us.

Fourteen is probably the perfect age. Three months school holiday, for starters. In Wexford you crawled the sugar-beet drills to weed out your first wage-packet. Then into the strawberry fields to savour the sweetest taste of all – girls. Sun-blushed lovelies in full bloom, one changing my life with a wave of her hand. And that, Toby, was the moment I knew we weren’t in Camross anymore.

Our widowed mother ran Nugent’s newspaper shop in the main street and we three helped out sometimes. For weeks, outriders of the world media dropped in. They’d buy the “New Ross Standard”, trying to fathom what class of uber-beings were we Rossonians who had bred this Master of the Universe.

Most of us had never even seen a helicopter before the President landed that June morning in O’Kennedy Park. Our CBS boys, dressed in all-white, spelt out a human Failte spread-eagled on the ground. Our primary school choirs introduced us. “We are the boys of Wexford, who fought with heart and hand, to burst in twain the galling chain and free our native land,” they sang. Our visitor listened in rapture, borrowed a song sheet, asked for another verse and joined in. And then he slipped his new favourite tune into the pocket where his “Ich Bin ein Berliner” speech sat in Germany the previous day. A Berliner one day; a Yellowbelly the next. Upwards and onwards.

Soon the cavalcade took off for town, a phalanx of youngsters slip-streamed behind, cascading down Creywell hill like bubbles in a flood. Into the streets where the President’s ancestors entered on another June day which effectively killed the 1798 Rebellion when 2,000 rebels died in battle. Some dark mornings, on your way to serve early Mass, you sense them walk beside you.

At the Tholsel, he turned past our memorial to that tragedy – the statue of a pikeman maybe Kelly, the Boy from Killane, showing a resemblance which might have been modelled on the man passing beneath. “And he looks like a king in command,” according to the song. “With that Wexford head on him,” as Anne Doyle once put it, even more accurately.

Then he was on the quay where his great-grandfather took his last footsteps on Irish soil 116 years earlier, away from a hopeless hinterland of Famine horror. What could he possibly have dreamt for his descendants?

Andy Minihan was the perfect host. The mischief-loving, Council chairman had a huge contempt for bureaucracy, especially for the echelons, Irish and American, who didn’t want our Jack to stop in Ross on his way to the family homestead in Dunganstown, three miles away. That morning, too, he defied those who wanted to cancel in respect to our Bishop of Ferns who had died overnight. Andy’s role in ensuring our perfect day endeared him to us forever.

The President introduced his family and friends – exotic creatures, with big hair and pearly-white teeth, who might just as easily have dropped in from another planet. Then he wrapped us in a web of eloquence, humour and nostalgia.

He intrigued us with visions of how he might have looked, walking among us every day. Had his great grandfather not left New Ross, he might be working at our Albatros factory, he said. “Or for John V Kelly,” our auctioneer/publican whose name he plundered from the opposite wall and sung into posterity in his Hawvawd cadence.

In our minds, the Kennedys and Rackards would have hurled together, and we’d be Kilkenny now. He’d be our TD, of course. At least.

He told how his family values had been forged among our own forefathers and in our country laneways. And we knew he had taken us to his heart. Some reckon this was the day independent Ireland dispensed with its inferiority complex and took her place among the, eh, notions of the earth.

As he left, he mingled awhile and shook hands. Neighbours’ children.

And then he was gone. For Dunganstown. For Dallas. For five months. Forever.

He never did get to come back in the Spring.

But we had our timeless moment in Camelot that day.

It lives within us still.

I’m grateful for all the memories this evokes, of things I actually recall and things I wish I’d witnessed.

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