An hour to remember

It is hard to believe that president John F Kennedy’s visit to Galway only lasted one hour. It was timed with military precision and yet JFK seemed remarkably relaxed and enjoying himself thoroughly throughout. He landed by helicopter in the Sportsground where he was met by the mayor, Paddy Ryan, a group of schoolgirls from the Mercy National School all dressed in green white and gold, some members of the American legion, and a crowd of enthusiastic onlookers.

An open Cadillac led a procession of cars with Garda outriders down College Road. JFK got out of his car to talk to Paddy Ryan’s mother who was sitting at her gate. The cortege arrived at Eyre Square where an enormous crowd was waiting. A formal welcome was read, and the president was made a Freeman of the City. The Patrician Boys’ Band played and Ruth Bradley played the harp and sang ‘Óró Sé Do Bheatha Abhaile’ accompanied by the Patrician Boys’ Choir. There was a tumultuous cheer when JFK got up to speak.

Nobody who witnessed the scene will ever forget the speech: “If the day was clear enough, and if you went down to the bay and looked west and your sight was good enough, you would see Boston, Massachusetts.” He asked the crowd to raise their hand if they had a “relative they would admit to” in America and he was confronted by a sea of hands. He electrified the crowd, and when he finished his speech he was almost mobbed by the crowd, each one of whom wanted to shake his hand.

When the secret servicemen and the gardaí finally got him back into his car, the cavalcade started off down Shop Street, Mainguard Street, and into Dominick Street where our photograph was taken. In the background you can see Ó’Máille’s tweed and woollen shop, O’Toole’s newsagents, and part of E Brún’s post office. The surprisingly small number of waving bystanders includes Stiofán and Cis Ó Máille. Do you recognise anyone else? What looks like drops of rain on the photograph were in fact bits of paper, Padraic Ó Máille had organised that Dominick Street would give the president a ticker-tape reception, the only place in Ireland to do so.

The cars moved on out through father Griffin Road and Lower Salthill to the car park opposite the Banba Hotel where his helicopter was waiting. There were a lot of fishing boats in the bay carrying large banners which spelt K-E-N-N-E-D-Y, and there was a huge banner across Seapoint with a tricolour and the stars and stripes and the words ‘Salthill, Galway Bay welcomes President Kennedy’. On the way out, the president kept asking Paddy Ryan questions about Galway and Salthill, where there was another huge crowd, and it seemed as if every one of them was determined to get into the helicopter with him to shake his hand.

He had created such a sense of euphoria in the hour that he was here that there was a sense of emptiness and loneliness when the helicopter took off. As Mrs Breda Ryan said: “It was like saying goodbye to somebody very cherished. I remember people waving and waving until you could see the chopper no more in the clouds.”

Five months later he was dead.

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