The American Cousin: Memories of JFK’s Trip to Ireland
In June 1963, President John F. Kennedy made a series of state visits throughout Europe. To Germany, where he made his famous Ich bin ein Berliner speech; to Italy; to England; and to Ireland, the country his great-grandfather Patrick Kennedy had left in 1848. Dave Powers, assistant and close friend to the president, described JFK’s four days in Ireland as “the happiest of his life.” He landed in Dublin, traveled to New Ross, the Kennedy homestead in Dunganstown and Wexford. He visited Cork, spoke at the Dáil and Dublin Castle, dined at Áras an Uachtaráin and stopped in Galway and Limerick before departing from Shannon. Here, excerpts from the JFK Library’s oral histories by Joseph E. O’Connor, which include interviews with everyone from Eamon de Valera to the Kennedys’ distant cousin Josie Grennan, paint a picture of what the visit was like for those in Ireland. Recollections from today speak to its enduring significance.
Dr. Sean Lemass, who at the time of Kennedy’s visit was serving as Ireland’s forward thinking Taoiseach.
“President Kennedy was regarded generally as a man of extraordinarily lively mind, a man who was intensely interested in the current event, in the things he saw, in the people he met, in the things they said to him. And certainly this was the characteristic of him that struck me most forcefully immediately after I met him. He was continuously asking questions about everything he saw, inquiring about the people whom he’d been introduced to, allowing no statement which interested him to pass without requiring an elaboration of it.
“Even during our drive together after his arrival at the airport to the city of Dublin, up to the Áras an Uachtaráin where he met President [De Valera], this type of conversation was going on all the time. He wanted an explanation of everything, and he was asking questions from an intense and lively interest. At first, I may say, I thought this was attributable to his interest in Ireland, to the emotional impact of his visiting Ireland as the first United States President ever to come here while in office, and as the first President of Irish ancestry ever to include Ireland in a state visit. But later on, I came to the conclusion that this was a natural characteristic of him; that this lively interest in everything was something which he had all through his life. And certainly I encountered it again when I went back to Washington later in that year, and thought it was very natural on his home ground.”
President Eamon de Valera
“When we heard he was coming to Ireland, we were very pleased. And when he arrived, he got a reception such as no other visitor, to my knowledge anyhow, has ever received. He was received with open arms by young and old. He was cheered wherever he went along the streets. It was a triumphal procession from the airport to up here. He paid his first call here. But we regretted very much that he didn’t stay with us here. He didn’t stay with us because he pointed out that he wanted to be in very close contact all the time with Washington. And that meant that the installation of a great deal of equipment and tons of equipment were necessary to keep that contact. He was here for luncheon, and he was here for a garden party. And when he was here, his officials asked, could they link us up so he would be able to get in contact, if necessary, at any moment with Washington. That was arranged, and by accident I picked up one of the phones here at my desk, and immediately got an answer from Washington faster than I would get it from even our house phone here. So it showed that the linkup was very thorough.”
Josie Grennan, the Kennedys’ cousin
“We were all very excited, but we regarded his coming as a cousin coming home. . . . We felt very at home with him from the time he stepped out of the car. It was just as if he had been here a couple of days before.
“Of course, before he came everyone was very tensed up. They didn’t know who they were going to meet or what they were going to meet. But I think he made them all just draw at their ease. A lot of the neighbors that helped that day were in the kitchen and they weren’t in the official party. They were supposed to keep in the background and they had been told by some of the officials that they were to stay away. But they were in the kitchen there and when [the president] was going out they opened the door. He went in and he chatted . . . chatted away with them. Some of them were shaking hands with him, for instance, three times.
“He wasn’t president when he was here. . . . That’s the way he wanted to be, I think. He wanted to be just one of ourselves.”
Frances Condell, Mayor of Limerick
“Sometimes we got the impression that the Americans were—they didn’t care very much about us and that perhaps we weren’t as forward in many aspects of life as you of America. And sometimes we felt that perhaps they, you know, their appreciation was given to us with their tongues in their cheeks. But this welcome of President Kennedy, this appreciation by President Kennedy was so spontaneous, that we felt this, and we appreciated this spontaneity of his. And then he, himself, was so genuinely appreciative, I think, of his Irish ancestry.
“We’ve had so many emigrants, you see, to the United States, that here, at last, we felt was an establishment of Ireland out there. And we feel, in Ireland, that we have contributed in no small measure to the building up of the United States, you know. And here . . . I must say that the wealth, or anything like that, of the Kennedy family, that has never entered into the picture here. He was one of us, and that was it.
“We had one glorious flag of America done in floral arrangements. So when the President walked out, he was very taken with this floral arrangement of the flag and when we were coming back from his being mobbed, you know, by the welcome of the people, he saw this, and he turned around and said, ‘Haven’t I seen this somewhere before?’ [Laughter] And I said, ‘Yes sir, we borrowed it. We knew that you liked it so well.’ [Limerick was added as a stop at the last minute because Condell refused to give up on a visit, arguing that the Fitzgeralds were from Limerick, and when her wish was granted, there was no time or money for flower arrangements so Condell “borrowed” the flowers from Cork where Kennedy had been the previous day].
But we found him a very easy guest and terribly appreciative of the welcome afforded him, and most anxious indeed to establish contact, I think, with the Fitzgeralds, who were there en masse. . . . He suddenly saw a man who was a relative of his, who was very alike to his own grandpa. He turned around to the Ambassador, and he pointed, and he said, ‘Isn’t he the image of Grandpa?’ So, of course, he had to go out and shake hands with him. And when we thought of the security arrangements which we had made, and then to see him going out, and the people were almost on his back.”
Dave Powers, Assistant to JFK
“Not only was it four of the happiest days of President John F. Kennedy’s life, but it was four of the happiest days of mine. From that first arrival at Dublin Airport and the greeting by President de Valera and the Irish people, and then that long ride down O’Connell Street, all the way to Phoenix Park. I rode in the car behind our president, with our secret service and the Irish police, and you have a better idea of the welcome. [A half million] people turned out to see their ‘cousin from America,’ and it was such a wonderful, wonderful greeting. I can remember the shops, everywhere you looked, you saw the American flag and the Irish flag crossed like this [crosses hands], and a smiling picture of President Kennedy, and above it read Céad Mile Fáilte, and he fell in love with that, he worked it into some of his speeches.”
Angier Biddle Duke, White House Chief of Protocol
“He rode in to town with President de Valera from the airport, and I rode behind with the Prime Minister [Sean Lemass] – and Kennedy was so proud of the turnout and really so delighted to see his ‘countrymen.’ After the Berlin hordes, of course, it just didn’t compare – as a matter of fact, it would be unfair to compare the hysterical passion of the Berlin multitudes to the jolly, friendly, hand waving crowds on the streets of Dublin. It’s a different population, different size, different motivation, and everything else, but it was almost touching to hear the Prime Minister being so proud – he said that this was the greatest welcome that had ever been given.
“When I was introduced in County Wexford, the President introduced members of his party, and he came to me and he said, ‘I want to introduce my Chief of Protocol who hasn’t got one drop of Irish blood’—it got a big laugh from the crowd, and it sent me back to my genealogical tables. I was able to tell him a month or so later that I had found a great-grandmother by the name of Artelia Rooney, and I wanted him to know it.”
Andrew Minihan, Mayor of New Ross
“We had made plans to welcome him as we in New Ross would welcome a returning son. . . . I told the other members of the committee, ‘The best thing we can do now is that we will agree with everything [the Department of External Affairs and the American Embassy] say. If they say “Turn left” we’ll say, “Yes, that’s all right. We’ll turn left.” But what we’ll actually do is we’ll do it our own way and the day the President arrives he’ll have a New Ross welcome, not an American welcome or not an External Affairs welcome, but a pure New Ross one.’
“I was waiting at the platform for him and I wasn’t – I’m not a type of individual who gets really excited, but at the last few minutes I did get a bit jittery, you see, especially when there was a Chief of Protocol to introduce me to Mr. X, and Mr. X was to introduce me to the President. By this time the President was in sight and the people were shouting their heads off. [When] his car arrived he jumped out and he came straight forward to me and he said, ‘Mayor Minihan, my brother Ted [Edward Kennedy] sent you his kindest regards and he said he had a whale of a time with you here in New Ross.’ And I knew from that minute that I was speaking to a man. He was no longer the real President of America or anything formal. He was a human being and naturally I fell for him and so did everybody else. I mean, he just had that humanity about him. He had the whole lot of it, you see.
“We had been ordered by the American Embassy not to let people shake hands with him because of his back injury. But the man, he himself, wanted to meet the people. When he came down off the platform his bodyguards were trying to push him into the car and he said, ‘No, I’m going to meet the people.’ So they said, ‘Right, sir. Come this way.’ And he caught me by the arm and he said, ‘Mayor, we go this way,’ going the opposite way. So he went around amongst the people and everybody was absolutely thrilled with him.”
Reflections From Today:
“He could have been any of our cousins.” – Cathal O’Shannon, journalist
“To put the visit into the context of the times: there was still dancing on radio in 1963. We used to listen to the thumps of feet on the studio floor. RTE had begun transmission in 1961, north Kerry probably got reception for the first time in 1962.
“Secondary schools had closed for the holidays, so any 14-year-old who knew that Kennedy was the most interesting member of the triumvirate, the others being Patrick Pearse and the Pope, with the Holy Ghost hovering only a little distance above them, had to watch every single bit of every single TV program on Kennedy’s visit to Ireland. My mother got permission from the Rices, who had the only TV set in our part of the village, for me to watch all the coverage. Mrs. Rice, a primary school teacher, was working, and though there were crowds for the evening repeats of the transmission, I was alone with the dog for almost all the day transmissions, including the Berlin Wall appearance, that little warm-up for his trip to Ireland. Everyone else in the village must have been busy. I would run to Rices’ house, turn the handle of the front door, pat the dog, sit on one of the high-backed dining chairs and go to heaven.
“There he was, the vibrant leader of the anti-communists and Catholic Irish all over the world, the embodiment of all that was good, protector of the downtrodden, especially us. I saw shining lights reflected in the eyes of the lucky ones who could see him in person. The Dubliners were swish; the Wexford cousins looked just like us. We, the Irish, had finally taken our rightful place among the nations of the Earth. Elevation to an exalted state of being was almost within our reach. I even saw people getting in and out of a helicopter; Kennedy had to stoop quite a bit.
“The only part of the visit that I did not see live was what was the last official part, with the mayor of Limerick, Frances Condell. We listened on the radio. They told us Mrs. Condell was a Protestant and the first woman to be elected mayor in Ireland. That she was a Protestant apparently took from her stature. Ma said she had to be a good woman, anyway. Though I can’t remember any of Kennedy’s speeches or anything other people said to him, he became human, at least for a little while, during Mrs. Condell’s speech, especially when she presented him with a lace christening gown for the baby that was expected.
“Then, if I remember rightly, he flew to England from Shannon airport. I couldn’t understand why he would want to go there.” – Sheila van Wulfften Palthe
“When President Kennedy spoke to the Dáil, he said the Irish, his own family among them, who went to America in the 1840’s ‘left behind hearts and fields and a nation yearning to be free.’ He quoted James Joyce, who’d called the Atlantic ‘a bowl of bitter tears.’ He said he’d come again in the spring. He couldn’t keep that promise but I am very happy that his daughter Caroline will be with us in June to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his visit. We will all welcome her home very warmly.” – Taoiseach Enda Kenny
“I remember my sister Ann, who worked in Dublin, saw the motorcade, and I was amazed that my sister had seen this Irish, Catholic powerful man – everything we aspired to be.” – Martin Sheerin
“I remember his speech in Wexford. He said if his grandfather hadn’t emigrated, he’d be working in the Albatross Fertilizer factory.” – Dan Hackett
“He connected to the people here – a natural affinity. Strange because in those days heads of state didn’t talk to ordinary people. And when President Obama came he seemed as relaxed as Kennedy was.” – Eugene McGale
“I was in the U.S. at that time but we all shared in the glory of the trip. A part of the story that has been sadly overlooked is the Fitzgerald (Limerick) side. It has all been about Wexford and New Ross but the true politicians were the Fitzgeralds, they were the family that got JFK started on his road to the White House.
“(My own confession: I’m from Bruff, Co Limerick, where the Fitzgeralds came from.)” – Carl Shanahan
“My father and mother met JFK at the Ball in Dublin. My father was TD from Meath and at the table was Enda Kenny’s mother and father. I remember my parents getting ready. Even as a boy I knew how important this was. When my mother came home very late she woke me up and took my hand and said ‘Now you’ve shaken the hand that shook the hand of the President of America.’” – John V Farrelly, Meath County Councillor, former TD