Imagine, for a second, the most powerful man in the world is coming to your house for tea.
What – on earth – do you cook?
Well, Mary Ryan went for homemade bread and salmon sandwiches when President John F. Kennedy came round. He brought quite an entourage of security and admirers, not to mention the world’s media, to her farmyard, so naturally she had her neighbours pitch in with the cooking. I can’t help but wonder whether her trembling hands managed to hold a teacup at all as the charismatic leader of the free world thanked her and her eager team, promising they would only impose on them “every ten years or so”.
Then again, June 1963 wasn’t the first time Mrs Mary Kennedy Ryan had welcomed her cousin to her home in Dunganstown, County Wexford. 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.
It’s safe to say there was a lot more mobbing this time round though! The Irish were simply ecstatic at the sight of their widely successful emigration son returned to the motherland and waving from his shining car. Kennedy’s tour of continental Europe that summer was a device to ease cold war tensions, but the four days he spent in Ireland at the end had negligible political motives: he just wanted a good time.
And that is what we gave him.
Air Force One touched down on Dublin Airport on June 26th, 1963, and Kennedy’s motorcade weaved through the streets of the city that evening. I wager that whoever took it upon themselves to sell American flags that day must still be a rich man. The thrilled crowd, channeling a ticker tape parade, improvised with what they had and threw rolls of bus tickets.
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. Author Ryan Tubridy in his book JFK in Ireland noted “the crowd went pink with excitement, hanging on every word.”
You can read the whole speech on the plaque beside the life-sized bronze sculpture of JFK 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 Irish jostling around him.
The next day, as he flew to Cork to be made a freeman of the city, one radio announcer remarked how Kennedy was again wearing a new suit! His wit was just as sharp as eyesight, as he exclaimed to the people of Galway hours before he left:
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.
His gracious pause allowed the crowd to roar with giddy laughter, and he followed;
I want to express… how much this visit has meant. It is strange that so many years could pass and so many generations pass and still some of us who came on this trip could come… here to Ireland and feel ourselves at home and not feel ourselves 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. Five months later, a special request by the late President’s wife found that same group of young, awe-struck Irish cadets forming the guard of honour and performing the drill at his funeral.
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 reopen in June 2013 to mark the 50th anniversary of his visit.
Sure, tell them Jack sent you and you may even get a salmon sandwich.
Interested to trace your own Irish ancestry?
Find out more about the 50th anniversary of JFK’s visit in 2013.