JFK in Ireland

Imagine the most powerful man in the world is coming to your house for tea. What – on earth – do you cook?

Cakes for for a President in County Wexford provided by Irish Times Photo Library
Cakes for for a President in County Wexford provided by Irish Times Photo Library

Well, Mary Ryan decided on homemade salmon sandwiches when President John F Kennedy came round. He brought an entourage of security, admirers, and the world’s media with him. Naturally, she had her neighbours pitch in with the cooking.

However, June 1963 wasn’t the first time Mrs Mary Kennedy Ryan had welcomed her cousin to her home in Dunganstown, County Wexford. It’s a fitting tribute then, that 50 years on, there’s a gathering planned to celebrate this visit.

Sixteen years earlier, during a three-week trip to Ireland, Kennedy had visited the town where his great grandfather had lived before he emigrated to Boston in 1847.

In May 2013, a torch was lit at John F Kennedy's resting place in Arlington Cemetery. It then began its journey to New Ross, County Wexford, the very place where the Kennedy story began. 

JFK statue in New Ross County Wexford
JFK statue in New Ross County Wexford

There was a lot more fanfare this time round though.

“He was like a rainbow coming off a plane,” says Ryan Tubridy, author of JFK in Ireland.

Air Force One touched down in Dublin airport on 26 June 1963. As Kennedy’s motorcade weaved through the streets of Dublin city, the thrilled crowd, lacking ticker tape, improvised with by throwing rolls of bus tickets.

A new job for a president

The next morning a helicopter brought the President to Wexford, the county of his great-grandfather. In the speech he made in New Ross, he joked that if his relations hadn’t left Ireland, he might now be working at the local factory, or the shop down the road.

The whole speech can be read on the plaque beside the life-sized bronze sculpture of him that stands on Charles Street Dock in New Ross today. His hand is extended, just like the photos of him warmly shaking hands with the star-struck locals jostling around him.

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Views across the Atlantic

Hours before he left Ireland, he stood in the main square of Galway city and told the crowd:

“If the day was clear enough, and if you went down to the bay, and you looked west, and your sight was good enough, you would see Boston, Massachusetts.”

A gracious pause allowed his audience to roar with giddy laughter, and he followed:

“Some of us who came on this trip… feel ourselves at home and not … in a strange country, but feel ourselves among neighbours, even though we are separated by generations, by time, and by thousands of miles.”

JFK later told his aides that his favourite part of the trip was the wreath laying and silent funeral drill done by the Irish Army cadets at Arbour Hill military cemetery in Dublin. 

An unexpected invitation

Five months later, his widow Jacqueline Kennedy made a special request to the Irish government. Could those Irish cadets, who so impressed the President on his visit, perform the drill again at his state funeral? Within days, those awe-stuck, trembling young men stood inches the foreign dignitaries from over 90 countries and performed their silent funeral drill in memory of a president that had inspired their country months ago.

As author Tubridy told MSNBC, “when he was tragically cut down, so far below his time, there was a dark cloud in Ireland that lasted for quite a long time.”

The rosary beads that were in the President’s pocket on that terrible day in Dallas can be seen in the Museum and Visitor Centre that now stands on Mary Ryan’s farm in Dunganstown. Proudly known as the Kennedy Homestead, it will have its grand reopening in June 2013 in time for the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s visit.

Sure, tell them Jack sent you and you may even get a salmon sandwich.

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