Friday, November 22, 2013


JFK in Dublin

     I know I don't have to tell you what happened on this day 50 years ago.  The newspaper and television coverage and racks of "special edition" magazines near the checkouts have all seen to that.  Commemorations are taking place all over the world today, and the film of the Presidential limo turning into Dealey Plaza will air over and over, and even though we've seen it a hundred times before, in our minds we'll be hoping it will somehow end differently, the Limo will stop, or Oswald will miss...but it rolls on to it's inexorable end, and as it does the sense of horror and sadness is the same.  But rather than dwelling on that awful moment I'd like to take a look at the Irish perspective.  President Kennedy, himself the descendant of famine immigrants, took a four day trip to Ireland shortly before his tragic death. It was a joyous homecoming, the island receiving him with open arms, delighting in their returned son. They and the Irish here in America were so very proud of our president.  My grandmother had only two pictures hanging in her front parlor.  One was of the Pope, the other of her president.
      It's hard today to find the words to explain to my children what it meant to have an Irish Catholic president.  Patrick O'Donovan, an Irish newspaper reporter based in London, wrote at the time of JFK's visit, "Occasionally in the history of a country, a thing happens that means more than can quite be put into words".   I was only 7 years old at the time of the assassination, but even I "got it".  It was impressed upon us in Mass every Sunday when Father enjoined us to pray for our president and we heard our parents and grandparents speak of him with great pride and admiration.  Perhaps it really can't be fully explained now that discrimination against Catholics is a thing of the past in most quarters.
     Young though I was, I also remember how everything changed overnight. So much more than the man was  taken away that day, our innocence was also stolen. The grief was palpable, women crying at Mass, the shocked, disbelieving looks on the faces of the men.  Those haunting images of Jackie's veiled form, her children close beside her.  One thing I don't recall seeing, is what happened at Arlington.  Due to my tender years, I wasn't allowed to watch the entire burial.  I might not have remembered all that happened anyway as young as I was, and I surely would have missed the significance of what occurred on the heels of the flyover.

     Months earlier, when the President and his wife visited Ireland, he and President de Valera had laid a wreath at the graves of the heroes of the 1916 Easter Rising.  During the ceremony, 26 Irish Army cadets performed a slow, mournful drill; a very precise one traditionally done in remembrance of the dead which ends with the soldiers lowering their heads over their rifles in solemn respect.  President Kennedy was so impressed by the young cadet's performance, he asked that a film be made of the drill and sent to Washington.

    In Ireland, preparations for filming began immediately.  The cadets practiced the drill daily week after week, perfecting every intricate move.  One drill sergeant, in that enigmatic Irish way, was not pleased, and he made it known.  Sgt. An Rau O'Sullivan cautioned the cadets, this drill was meant only for a burial or memorial service, to perform it for any other reason was to court bad luck.

    And so, it would seem, it was.  Four months after returning home, the unthinkable happened and our young President was gone.  As plans went forward for the funeral, Jackie Kennedy sent a request to the State Department--she wanted the Irish cadets to repeat the same drill they had done for the President in Ireland at his graveside in Arlington.  This was an unusual request, never before had a foreign army been called upon to perform such a service for an American president, but could they refuse the President's widow?

     That evening a call from the Irish military chief of staff was received at the cadet's  barracks in Kildare--"You are providing a guard of honor at the funeral of President Kennedy", was the message.  Young men were frantically sent to round up their fellow cadets in restaurants, theaters and dance halls.  They would leave the next day, the 23rd,  for Washington.

    The day of the funeral, the cadets waited by the grave for hours, in the distance, muffled sounds of the cortege could be heard coming ever closer.  As the caisson bearing the casket arrived, the Marine Band began the National Anthem, followed by the old aire, Mist Covered Mountains, played by the Air Force Pipe Band.  As the President was carried to his final resting place, 50 military jets followed by Air Force One commenced their flyover; then finally the order came-- "Ar Arim Aisiompaithe Lui", and the drill began. It went flawlessly.  Upon their return to Ireland, the cadets were greeted with praise and  honored by President deValera personally.  Still known as Kennedy's Class, they remain close, and are planning a trip back to Arlington this year.  While they won't be performing the drill again, I would bet that as they stand by the eternal flame, the tones of the bagpipes will come wafting back over the decades and at least in their mind's eye, it will be repeated.

     You Tube has a six part video on the subject titled, JFK's Irish Honor Guard here, the videos aren't long, under 9 minutes each.  Part 4 has the best video of the drill, but they are all worth watching.

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