Sean Reidy, CEO of the JFK Trust, looks back on President Kennedy’s visit to New Ross in 1963, and forward to celebrations on the 50th anniversary of that visit.
“I’ll be back in the springtime” were the last words spoken by President John F. Kennedy before he boarded Air Force One to return to the U.S. after his momentous visit to Ireland in 1963. His desire to return was genuine, but his wish was never to be realized. The tragic event in Dallas intervened.
President Kennedy’s visit to Ireland was a hugely enjoyable and uplifting occasion, both for the President and the nation of Ireland.
As a fourteen year old I can remember being excited and greatly encouraged by a speech to Dáil Éireann that inspired positive action and pride of country. It certainly was not the usual drab and discouraging message one had been used to hearing from this chamber. Kennedy said that we were a great country that had achieved much and punched way above our weight down through the centuries, a small nation playing a major role in world affairs. How many young Irish men and women were inspired by his words I do not know, but I am sure there are many more like me who have carried them with us throughout our lives like beacons of encouragement and sustenance. His visit had a transforming effect on Ireland.
President Kennedy himself was much buoyed up by the warmth and enthusiasm of the welcome he received. His sister Jean once told me how during the months following his visit, whenever the President got to be in Hyannis, he would summon all the family to his drawing room to view the video of his Irish trip.
He loved every minute of it. The President’s close aide Dave Powers told me that Kennedy had confided in him after his Irish visit that his ambition was to serve two terms as President and that his last executive action would be to appoint himself permanent Ambassador to Ireland.
JFK’s tour of Ireland was accompanied by much pomp and ceremony, but the most enduring images are those of the young President being greeted by his cousins in Dunganstown. The remark-able family resemblances between Mary Ryan and her daughters, Mary Ann and Josie, and the President and his sisters, Jean and Eunice, confirmed that the good-looking Kennedy gene was alive and well on both sides of the Atlantic.
Kennedy’s sister Jean was to fulfill the President’s own ambition to become U.S. Ambassador to Ireland and arrived in Dunganstown for her first official duty as Ambassador on the 30th anniversary of the 1963 visit on June 27, 1993, precise to the day, with typical Kennedy timing and Kennedy style. She had been appointed by President Clinton in March and Senator Edward Kennedy had used all his influence to ensure her appointment was ratified in time for the important date. I was honored to have played a role in this event, and Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith has been a great friend of New Ross and Ireland ever since.
Jean was back in 2008 on the 45th anniversary of the visit to unveil the JFK Statue on the quayside in New Ross. It was on that occasion that we all gathered in the Kennedy Homestead in Dungans-town to have tea with the present owner and Kennedy cousin Patrick Grennan and his wife, Siobhan. During the tea party, Jean asked to meet with Minister Brian Lenihan and, with her Kennedy charm, asked the minister if he would consider giving some state assistance to Patrick to develop a proper exhibition center at the Homestead. Local Minister Sean Connick followed up with Lenihan, pressing the point until finally in the budget speech of 2009, Lenihan, saying he wanted to honor the memory of the recently deceased Senator Edward Kennedy, committed to a modest development at the Kennedy Homestead. There was much jubilation.
Alas, the government fell, Brian Lenihan tragically died and nothing happened. The director of the Kennedy Summer School, Noel Whelan, met Brian Hayes, the new Minister of the Office of Public Works, at the Glenties Summer School in 2011 and told him about the Kennedy Homestead and the previous plan for the state to develop it. Hayes said he would come down.
He came to New Ross and Patrick Grennan gave him a tour of his ad hoc collection of newspaper cuttings, photographs and letters. I watched as Hayes, who was not even born in 1963, was captivated by the story being told by Patrick in his inimitable and slightly irreverent Kennedy style. Before he left, a small group of us gathered around to hear what the minister had to say. He said that there was no money in the file, but having visited and hearing Patrick’s story he was determined to find money somewhere to make it happen.
In these most financially stringent of times, Hayes proved a man of his word. Amazingly, he managed to find the budget to develop the new Kennedy Homestead Visitor Center in Dunganstown. He was encouraged in his task by Paul Kehoe, the government chief whip, who is from nearby Enniscorthy and was a classmate of Patrick Grennan.
The new visitor center will be finished in time for the 50th Anniversary in June, and for me this opening will be the centerpoint of the celebrations. To see the amazing story of the Kennedy family being told in a new state of the art exhibition, through a mixture of media, with such a rich supply of material, will be fascinating for anyone who visits. It will trace the story from Patrick leaving as a Famine emigrant to his great-grandchildren returning as U.S. President (John F. ), U.S. Ambassador (Jean), founder of the Special Olympics (Eunice), Attorney General (Bobby), U.S. Senator (Edward) – the story goes on.
This new center will be a tribute to the Kennedys who left and those who stayed. It has been, to a large extent, inspired by Patrick Grennan’s determination down through the years to keep the Homestead open for visitors, where despite his busy day job of farming the land, he also manages to act as tour guide, because he appreciates the importance of this site in the context of the social and economic history of Ireland.
President Kennedy’s return to Dunganstown and nearby New Ross, the port from which his ancestor left for America, in a sense laid to rest the ghost of the Great Famine, as the great-grandson of a Famine emigrant returned to the land his great-grandfather had left 114 years earlier. Luckily the homestead had stayed in the family’s hands down through the years, despite trials and tribulations, threats of eviction, and with much hard work and perseverance.
Jacqueline Kennedy brought John Jr. and Caroline to visit as very young children and gave to Mary Ann, Patrick’s aunt, the dog tag and rosary beads that were on the President’s person the day he died. That’s how important she considered that connection to be, leaving the most personal of President Kennedy’s possessions there to be kept in perpetuity. These items and others will be on display in the new exhibition. Patrick Grennan said to me recently, “Sean, to be able to properly display these priceless objects is reason enough on its own to develop the new center.”
Caroline Kennedy will accompany Taoiseach Enda Kenny to perform the official opening at 11 a.m on June 22. Jean will be there again, and many more members of the Kennedy family. We will toast and celebrate the life of John F. Kennedy over a cup of tea at the farmyard that hasn’t changed since Famine times. From there we will move to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Park to open another new exhibition and to plant trees as reminders of the presence of Caroline, Jean and other family members on the day.
Proceedings in New Ross will conclude with afternoon celebrations on the quayside where JFK spoke in 1963. A new boardwalk linking the JFK Statue with the Dunbrody Famine Ship will be opened, a specially commissioned sculpted podium marking the spot where the President spoke will be unveiled, and Caroline Kennedy will be invited to light the Emigrant Flame from the Gathering Torch in a specially commissioned globe adjacent to the Dunbrody Famine Ship. This torch will have been lit from the eternal flame at President Kennedy’s graveside on the President’s birthday, May 29, transported to Ireland and kept carefully alight for the President’s daughter to perform this most symbolic and meaningful act, a flame of inspiration and hope, as epitomized in the life of President Kennedy, and dedicated to all Irish people forced to emigrate to find a better life.
This wonderful initiative of New Ross Town Council will ensure that President Kennedy’s wish to return in the springtime will at least be symbolically realized.
In a final act, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy will be posthumously inducted into the Irish America of Fame at the Dunbrody Famine Ship. He was surely the greatest Irish American of them all.
Photos from President Kennedy’s 1963 visit to Ireland and the visits of various members of the Kennedy clan: