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Memories of President Kennedy’s Visit in June 1963

Gerry Speiran

For four golden days in June 1963, President Kennedy came among us to visit. He was returning home to the U.S. from Berlin, where he made his famous “Ich Bein Ein Berliner” speech and arranged to stay in Ireland for a short break from his Herculean labours to visit his Relations in Wexford and what fantastic excitement he brought us.

His speech on arrival at Dublin airport was wonderful and his Boston accent was mesmerising, but Black and White TV did not do him justice. My friend Shay and I went to the Phoenix Park to see his Motorcade processing to Áras An Uachterán. We managed to find a good vantage point in front of the crowd at the roadside and we strained to see any sign of his car-and then to thunderous applause and acclaim he came into view. In 1963 Ireland’s resources were pretty scarce most of the population at the time seemed to wear charcoal grey clothes and other dowdy colours and we had pasty complexions to match. Suddenly this vision appeared, the motorcade was moving slowly and there he was beside us, with a deep tan, flashing smile, perfectly groomed hair and wearing a blue mohair suit, he was stunning, other worldly – god-like.

Here was the President of the greatest nation on Earth and he was very proud of his Irish roots – he elevated the spirit of the Irish People and during those wonderful days all was well with the world. When we returned home that day we were awe-struck with President Kennedy and Shay and I tried to walk like him and we repeated his phrases in our best Boston accents. I was due to make my confirmation and I asked my parents if I can have a suit like President Kennedys, they just smiled and said they would get me a good strong suit that would last me for years.
Over the next few days, we followed his every move on TV, his visit to Arbour Hill to see our Heroes, his speech in Dáil Éireann, where he praised our contribution to the world, his visit to his ancestral home in Wexford where he made witty speeches and then it was on to Galway. A memory that has stayed with me over the years is that of President Kennedy in Galway, he noticed two elderly men dressed in old black suits, black boots and wearing black caps standing nearby, and he beckoned them to come over to him. The two men looked at each other in disbelief to think that the president was calling them, he then beckoned them again with a wave of this arm and the men made their way to him, removing their caps in deep respect and shaking his hand. The president greeted them warmly and it was a very poignant moment.

He then visited limerick and was told that it was famous for Women and Horses and he seemed highly amused that every county in Ireland was famous for something, he laughed and smiled a lot during his visit and seemed very much at ease – I’m sure he could feel the waves of adulation and genuine affection from the crowds wherever he went. Finally it was on to Shannon for his departure. During the days he spent with us, he told us of our strengths, our moral courage, our generosity to those less fortunate than ourselves and of our Literary and Cultural contribution to the world. He quoted our poets and writers and he made us very proud to be Irish. He also instilled in us a new sense of optimism in our nation’s ability to succeed. At Shannon airport he quoted some lines from a poem, given to him by Ban DeValera about seeing old Shannon’s face. During his speech he said how much he had enjoyed his visit and that he would return to see old Shannon’s face again in the Spring. I was eleven years old at the time and I felt very sad when he was leaving us but took great comfort in his promise to return.

On that most terrible of days in Dallas, Texas, Friday the 22nd of November only a few short months after his magical visit to Ireland, all the hope and optimism were dashed as those shots rang out in Dealy Plaza. That obscene act robbed the world of a brighter future and left all of those who had any contact with President Kennedy – devastated.

On that evening we were watching TV and coincidentally it was a program about a man, a women and a dog starring Peter Lawford, the President’s brother -in-law, when at around seven pm RTÉ’s chief news reader Charles Mitchell interrupted the program with a News Flash- that an attempt had been made to assassinate President Kennedy and that he had been taken at high speed to Parkland Memorial hospital in Dallas. Not realising he had died instantly we knelt down and recited the rosary and begged God to save him. I am sure that this action was repeated by families all over the country. When confirmation came through on the nine o’clock evening news that President Kennedy was dead, we were truly shattered. We in Ireland grieved for him as a member of the family, how his actual family got through those days and months, I can’t even imagine.

In 1994 I was in Boston on business and I visited the Kennedy library and among all the various exhibits were colour movies and quotations from his Irish visit- all the memories came flooding back. That day long ago in the Phoenix Park, Shay and I were just a few feet away from the President as he passed by slowly in his motorcade and the only time I ever got that close to him again was when I paid my respects at his graveside in Arlington Cemetary, 33 years later in 1996.
It is hard to believe that 50 years have passed since those heady days in June 1963- for those of us most fortunate to have lived during his lifetime President Kennedy will remain alive in our memories and indeed in our hearts forever. I am sixty-one years old now and I still look back on those days of his Irish visit as a very happy and carefree time and his Assassination as one of the saddest moments I can recall.

- in Arrival in Dublin