He Might Have Passed Us By
Few people know that there was a moment at the 11th hour when JFK’s stop-over in New Ross might have been cancelled. Instead of this glorious 50th anniversary celebration, we Rossonians (although sometimes I think the term NewRossics sounds more apt) might now be lamenting instead The Day the President Passed Us By.
On June 27, 1963, we awoke to the news that our Bishop of Ferns, Dr James Staunton, had died in Ely House in Wexford during the night.
These were the days when our politicians might not have been “Irish first and Catholic second” and when the clergy held greater sway throughout the land. So that when Canon Michael Murphy, parish priest of Cloughbawn, rang Andy Minihan that morning and ordered him to scrap the visit as a mark of respect to the dead prelate, it all hung in the balance.
Canon Murphy, a Rossonian from Quay Street, was a relative of Andy’s wife, Nan. Andy was “Mr New Ross”, a local Fianna Fail councillor and chairman of the Kennedy visit committee. A successful business man, he was a native of Cork who had been raised in Glasgow. His powerful Scottish accent would have carried even had the sound system collapsed that day; it was attached to a larger-than-life persona encased in a huge appetite for mischief and a healthy disregard for bureaucracy. The townspeople loved him.
“I forget now how long Andy spent agonising over the decision,” his son, Mark, says, recalling the incident.
“About two seconds, I’d say,” says my mother, who used to serve Andy his Irish Press in the local newspaper shop every morning.
It was the best of times, the best of times. Only better.
Everything starts to change when you are 14 and that’s how 1963 found me. When June came bursting out all over, you were looking at three months school holiday for a start. In Wexford, that’s two weeks on your knees up and down the beet fields weeding out the weaker plants , eking out your first wage packet. It was hard, wrist-wrecking work. But there was consolation to be found in the second fortnight. Then you got your first taste of the forbidden fruits to be savoured while harvesting the Ballymacar strawberry fields. Sweeter than wine? Who knew; sweeter than lemonade anyway.
Then, one day, the most powerful, the most handsome, the most charismatic man on earth came to our town. And said he was one of us.
JFK was on his ‘Ich bin ein NewRosser’ tour.
Had his great-grandfather not sailed from this very quayside all those years back, he told us, he might now be working at the Albatros factory there over his shoulder. “Or perhaps for John V Kelly,” his champagne cadence singing the auctioneer/publican’s name on the wall opposite into local folklore forever.
One of us? God, if only Jack Kennedy – and Bobby and Teddy – had been around to run with the Rackards, we’d be Kilkenny now. He’d be our TD, of course. Not quite the same oratorical flourish, obviously. “Ask not what I can do for you. I’m asking ye what have yez done to our country?” Only more of a Mick Wallace lilt.
We had Nugent’s newspaper shop in South Street. For weeks various outriders of the world media would drop in. They’d buy the “Standard”, reading between Larry Larkin’s lines trying to fathom what class of people were we who bred this Master of the Universe. And, of course, they needed directions to Dunganstown. “Sure, Brendan there will show you,” my mother would say, which is when my big brother established his first fortune.
On the day the eagle landed our distinguished guest got the first sign of our welcome from the heavens. As his helicopter unwound onto O’Kennedy Park, named for Sean and Gus who brought us those four-in-a-row football titles of long ago, he looked out on a unique font of squirming flesh fashioned in maybe the first-ever human FAILTE. Our CBS boys prostrate in formation in their sports day whites, Bill Stafford’s lads in black armbands as a tribute to Dr Staunton. “I should have been the fada on the A,” my cousin Michael objected to his mother later, “but I ended up as the cross on the T”. Michael is in St Stephen’s now but his laughing boy face is etched forever in one of those iconic photographs of that moment in the park. It beams out now from a wall in the Boston Kennedy Library.
Our combined school choirs reminded the visitor of exactly who we were and where we had all come from. “We are the boys of Wexford, who fought with heart and hand, to burst in twain the galling chain and free our native land.” His own forefathers were among them. He listened in obvious rapture, borrowed a song sheet from Moira Hendrick, asked for another verse and joined in. And then he slipped the hymn sheet of his new favourite tune into his pocket.
Ten more minutes of mayhem with a myriad of outstretched hands touching across the generations. Soon the cavalcade took off for town, a phalanx of youngsters slip-streamed behind, cascading down Creywell hill like terrier puppies refusing to let their master go. Into the streets where the President’s ancestors had entered on another June day long ago, a day when 2,000 people died in battle, the defeat which effectively killed the 1798 Rebellion. Sometimes in the early morning when you think these streets are empty you can feel their ghosts walk beside you. At the Tholsel he turned past our memorial to that tragedy – the statue of a pikeman, maybe Matthew Furlong, or is it Kelly, the Boy from Killane, showing a resemblance which might have been modelled on the man passing beneath. “With that Wexford head on him,” as Anne Doyle so eloquently put it recently. “Seven feet is his height with some inches to spare,” according to the song, “and he looks like a king in command”. Sure, they might have been twins.
Then he was on the quayside where his great-grandfather took his last footsteps on Irish soil, taking him away from a hopeless hinterland in the last stages of our great Famine horror. In the hope of ensuring a better life for those who would come after him. The same Barrow river where we all learned to swim and fish and row now.
None of this was going to plan, by the way. Not the plan of the Secret Service guys or the Department of External Affairs anyway. The upper echelon didn’t really want Kennedy to stop in the town to begin with. And then they wanted the journey between the Park and the Quay “sanitised” – no spectators above ground level. And certainly no marching bands. Andy and his local committee agreed to all the stipulations – and then decided to do it their way anyhow. All the photographs show the upper floor windows straining with bodies jockeying for position just like they had done on Hill 16 back in September. And “tell me who is that giant with the gold curling hair, he who strides at the head of your band?” Who but Big Sam McDonald, maybe even taller than Kelly, leading out our beloved FCA Pipe Band, strutting in splendid pomp and defiance. Andy got his way; we all got an up-close decent look at our passing visitor.
John Hanrick and I were in position from much earlier, three deep at the centre fronting the stage replete with all our local dignitaries. Near the guy with a placard which read: “Johnny, we hardly knew ye.” Sergeant Campbell made him take it down. Would he obey now? There are those who reckon this was the day independent Ireland finally dispensed with the inferiority complex, shuffled off her moral coil, so to speak, and took her rightful place among the notions of the earth.
Andy started proceedings with the disturbing: “We’re in right trouble now” believing that the sound system was out. But Gerald Ward had the failed electrics restored in time to broadcast Andy’s concern. Soon the President was at the mic, straddling “115 years, 6,000 miles and three generations” to wrap us in a verbal web of eloquence, wit and nostalgia that would captivate us forever.
He introduced us to his family and friends on the rostrum, beautiful exotic creatures with big hair, bronzed skin and pearly white teeth who might just as easily have dropped in from another planet. He intrigued us with those visions of how he would have looked walking among us every day. He assured us that the Kennedy family still adhered faithfully to those values his great-grandfather had taken with him from this very spot. “He carried nothing but two things,” he said, “a strong religious faith and a strong desire for liberty. I’m glad to say we value that inheritance.” We loved his easy way with us and his earnestness when he told how his family values had been forged among our own ancestors and in our country laneways.
We knew he had taken us to his heart, just like we had succumbed to his charm. His sister, Jean, who was there, would tell later how he would enveigle family members into watching film footage of that trip with him time and again.
Soon he was gone, off to nearby Dunganstown and a farmyard picnic fit for a prince – tea, sandwiches and a cake iced in his image – with cousins, Mary Ryan and daughters Josie and Mary-Ann among them. The President of the United States of America, John F Kennedy, called on us that day. Our Jack had finally come home.
There was never a better day for a 14-year-old – although I wonder sometimes about the girls in our Good Shepherd laundry. We felt a mutual love that morning that we knew would last forever. He was, after all, one of us.
He left our shores promising to return again in the springtime. Those were the days, my friend; we thought they’d never end. Five months later he was dead. We never did get to see him again, but he left so much of himself behind. We had our glorious moment in Camelot that day.
It lives within us still.
- in New Ross