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Joseph McAuleyJune 28, 2019
Wikimedia Commons

If a certain member of President John F. Kennedy’s “Irish Mafia” had had his way, J.F.K. would never had made his memorable trip to Ireland in June 1963. When planning was underway for the president’s European trip that spring (which would include Germany, Italy, France and England), Kenny O’Donnell, the presidential appointments secretary and all-around gatekeeper, learned that the president wanted Ireland to be included. O’Donnell was not happy.

O’Donnell, famously taciturn, was the steely-eyed keeper of the Kennedy schedule and his political protector. (So much so that when introduced to Nikita Khrushchev, he stared down the Soviet chairman, to the president’s amusement. Kennedy joshed him later: “My God, Kenny! He must have thought you were from the I.R.A.”) He immediately made known his objections, to Kennedy’s famously open irritation.

Like the dog with the bit in his teeth, O’Donnell wouldn’t let up. He went through all the reasons he could think of to prevent a stop in Ireland, saying J.F.K. already had Irish American voters on his side in the looming 1964 re-election campaign. He said it would be a waste of time, considering other presidential priorities, and that Republicans would rip Kennedy to shreds over making a “pleasure trip” to his ancestral homeland.

O’Donnell should have known better in dealing with a man who could answer criticism with sharp and funny ripostes. To wit: at a press conference, a questioner wanted to know what Kennedy thought of a recent Republican conference resolution calling the president pretty much “a failure.” Fingering his papers at the lectern, Kennedy prompted gales of laughter with his dry response: “I’m sure it passed unanimously.” And now the presidential hackles were up.

“That’s what I want, a pleasure trip to Ireland,” said the president. (This and other anecdotes in this essay are recounted in the jointly written 1972 memoir of Kenneth P. O’Donnell and David F. Powers, Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye: Memories of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.) When O’Donnell hectored him further, he looked up from his newspaper: “Kenny, let me remind you of something. I am the president of the United States, not you. When I say I want to go to Ireland, it means I’m going to Ireland. Make the arrangements.”

It proved to be the stop Kennedy needed after tense, Cold War–era conferences in other European capitals. It was in Ireland that J.F.K. could be himself and revel in his Irishness.

When members of the Kennedy entourage saw the reception he received in the Emerald Isle, they were beside themselves. He was mobbed everywhere he went, not only in Dublin but also in Wexford, Galway and Limerick, and the Secret Service had some nervous moments. They need not have worried, for this was Ireland after all—the land of “saints and scholars,” lusty songs and the cold pint from the tap as well as vigorous and invigorating conversation.

From the time Ireland was put on the schedule, anyone and everyone with an Irish surname wanted a seat on Air Force One. O’Donnell went, of course, and so did Dave Powers. The latter had been assisting J.F.K. since his 1946 congressional race, when they canvassed for votes in the triple-deckers of Charlestown. Since then, Powers had kept him almost on schedule, properly dressed (except for the faux pas of brown shoes and a blue suit at the Houston ministers’ meeting in 1960) and constantly fed. Powers was a walking computer who could recite every election return in J.F.K.’s races, as well as every box score for the Red Sox. But on this trip, Powers had his camera at the ready. He took it all in and remembered.

Everybody fawned over the visiting American president, including Irish President Éamon de Valera, who gave the welcoming address at Dublin Airport in both Gaelic and English (railing against the “alien invaders” of Ireland, also known as the British) and stayed by his side through much of the ceremonial events. Though Kennedy would have hated to admit it, he was very moved emotionally by the trip. The maxim that was often applied to him, “he acted lightly because he felt deeply” certainly applied to him then.

At times, it took great effort to control—and hide—his feelings for the outpouring of elation and good will shown to him on this trip. During that summer before his death in November, he would corral anyone he could to sit down and watch films of that trip. It got to the point that White House staffers did what they could to avoid yet another viewing. The famous Kennedy detachment kicked in when he was watching films of his own trips: he clapped at all the right places as if he was viewing the performance of somebody else.

The 1963 trip to Ireland would prove to be the most meaningful and memorable of the Kennedy travels. To the astonishment of the members of the Irish Parliament, he quoted James Joyce (verboten in that chamber and Irish society of the time) and quoted Lord Edward Fitzgerald (no relation), whose quip about the lack of “original minds” in Irish upper echelons annoyed de Valera no end. He presented to the Irish people a Civil War battle flag from the Irish 69th and, at Shannon Airport upon departure, quoted some lines that he had heard from President de Valera’s wife, Sinead (herself a scholar of Irish literature and folklore) about someday seeing “old Shannon’s face” again.

After four magical days, with a wave and a smile, J.F.K. made a quick flight up the stairs of Air Force One, after promising to “come back in the springtime.” That springtime would never come. He was soon gone, and he became part of the ether of that “green and misty island” that entranced him so.

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John McAllister
4 years 11 months ago

I was 13 at the time and we devoured every moment of his visit. It was a fairy tale of the emigrant made good. One of our neighbours - a refugee from Derry, like many other Catholics in our small town of Naas Co Kildare from the wee North, filmed everything he could from the TV. His son, now living in Australia, has the reels his Dad made and is going to process them onto more modern media.

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