A Childhood Perception of a Family Link with The Kennedys

Interpreter, Willie White with Tánaiste and Labour Party Leader, Dick Spring, Jacqui Browne, Chairperson of the Kerry County Network of People with Disabilities; Jean Kennedy Smith, US Ambassador to Ireland and Billy Downes, Chairman of the Town of Tralee VEC at the Youth in Action Week at Siamsa Tíre during Ms. Kennedy’s visit in the spring of 1997. ©Photograph: John Reidy 11-4-1997

It may be hard for people who didn’t live through the 1960s or remember the decade to fully grasp the affinity this country had with the powerful, tragic and US based Kennedy clan.

I remember being in a classroom in the convent primary school the morning on which one of the older girls was sent around to inform the nuns that ‘Kennedy is elected.’

The nun turned around to us and informed us of the news as she made the sign of the cross with a huge rosary beads. She led us in prayer for the President of America – a man from a family which would dominate the news and newspaper pages for years thereafter.

JFK in Ireland

Then a couple of years later, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy visited Ireland and the papers went cover-to-cover and we still hadn’t enough.

By now the full, broadsheet page, full colour portrait of President Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline was a regular feature in a majority of Irish homes – along with a similarly sized, similarly sourced photograph of Pope John XX111 who died in 1963.

I remember my grandmother giving out yards about a shopkeeper in town who wrapped a message for me with a double page spread of a newspaper – one of which carried a colour photograph of the same pope.

Made Pulp of the Portrait

Whatever moisture was in the message had made pulp of the portrait and had obliterated the head and shoulders of the avuncular pontiff.

John F Kennedy’s set to with his Russian counterpart over the situation in Cuba had us terrified as children.

We were told to go home straight from school as we were expecting the sky to be darkened with missiles any day now.

We did go home straight but with anxious eyes on the sky.

Tips on Survival

Our fears were compounded with the arrival of a ‘survival handbook’ at around the same time which gave us tips on getting through a future which we didn’t expect to see an awful lot of.

Then in November 1963, the country was in floods of tears and on its knees in prayer as the news of the assassination of John F. Kennedy swept the country.

Houses with television sets were packed as we followed every scrap of news and Micheál O’Hehir’s voice, well below its normal context, setting the scene for the funeral of a man we had adopted as one of our own – and who gave a powerful impression that the feeling was mutual.

First Evening of TV

It was the first evening that we had a television set in our house and the only one in the neighbourhood. The house was packed for days and at times when the adults should be going about their usual business. It was like they couldn’t get away from the tragedy itself and the novelty of having it beamed into the corner of the room.

The only reason we got a television at that time was that my parents and their souvenir making business were to be featured on Frank Hall’s Newsbeat on that very evening.

The segment was filmed by the late Pádraig Kennelly and narrated by the late Seamus McConville – later to become editors of Kerry’s Eye and The Kerryman respectively. But a news flash by the man we came to know as Charles Mitchell changed all that.

Death of a Dream

Even for people like my grandparents who had been through the war of independence and the civil war and the darkness of the second world war, the assassination of President Kennedy seemed to draw some kind of line under that era of relative peace here and marked the death of a dream.

My childish perception of our links with the Kennedys was set on that November night in 1963 and cemented by the fact that we had a television for the first time and that the tragedy which befell JFK had kept my parents’ from realising their TV debut.

Co-incidence of Dates Again

Then, in 1968 my aforementioned grandmother died in June on the same week as Robert Kennedy’s assassination and again the newspapers were full of the Kennedys.

And thought the weather was very warm, I saw the days around that time as pitch black.

Oddly, I also remember hearing the Procol Harum song A Whiter Shade of Pale from a car radio outside the church as my father was inside making funeral arrangements.

And I met a lad from Knocknagoshel against whom I played football a year or so before and he had grown a lot in the meantime.

Long Wait for Short Trousers

He had just got a ‘long pants’ which belonged to one of his brothers and he hated it as its legs fell well short of his ankles are were closer to half way up his shins.

Under the circumstances I felt guilty for laughing with him.

It was the way he told the story of his long wait to get a grown-up trousers and the jibes he was getting about the half mast state of his hand-me-downs. He was saying it would be fine in the winter with the wellingtons coming up to meet it.

Lived Through Tragedy

The death of Jean Kennedy Smith this week swept me away back over the years again.

To think that she lived through and survived all the tragedy her family was subjected to over all those years.

“She was a very warm, kind and genuine woman and very interested in the youth work that was being done in the area of disabilities,” said Brosna native and chairman of the Town of Tralee VEC, Billy Downes in paying tribute to her this week while recalling meeting her on one of her trips to Tralee.

Genuine and Warm Friendship

The dream, whatever it was, may have died with her brothers in 1963 and ’68, but Jean Kennedy Smith’s passing this week draws a line under the genuine and warm friendship a generation or more of Irish people shared with the Kennedys.

After all that and what she did for Ireland through her determined and mostly behind the scenes role in the peace process in Northern Ireland she was an amazing woman. May God be good to her.