JKF - 50th Anniversary of presidential Visit to Galway

It lasted only an hour, but for a generation of Galwegians it was a momentous occasion, one that gave a city and a population emerging from the oppressive 1950s, a much needed boost of confidence. It was the day US president John F Kennedy came to visit.

This Saturday marks 50 years to the day since the 35th president of the US visited Galway on Saturday June 29 1963. So what happened when Kennedy came to visit and what is the legacy of that day?

The ‘American Dream’ come true

John F Kennedy was not the first Irish-American president. That honour belongs to Andrew Jackson, the seventh holder of the office from 1829 - 1837.

Jackson was the son of Presbyterian Irish immigrants who arrived in the US in the 1760s, (his brothers were all born in Ireland ). To this day he remains the only first generation child of Irish immigrants to win the USA’s highest office.

For Irish-Americans in the 1900s, regardless of their political or religious affiliations, Jackson was seen as ‘one of our own’, and some Irish battalions in the US Civil War named themselves after him.

By the 20th century this had changed profoundly. Definitions of Irishness had become narrower and Catholicism was seen by many, if not most, as a defining badge of what it meant to be Irish.

The significance of John F Kennedy was that he was the first (and still only ) Roman Catholic to hold the post of US president and for the Ireland of the 1960s that made JFK, and his family’s story, a prime example of the ‘American Dream’ come true, and a kind of ‘national hero’ for a generation in Ireland.

“Kennedy was important because he broke the religious barrier in US politics, just as Obama has done with race,” says Brendan McGowan of the Galway City Museum. “Earlier generations of the Kennedys had played down their Irish ancestry in order to advance socially. Kennedy’s father Joseph Kennedy was not allowed into certain fraternities in university which were suspicious of Catholics and ‘new money’.”

His son however fully embraced his Irish background. “All eight of Kennedy’s great-grandparents emigrated from Ireland so he had the full and direct bloodline,” says Brendan. “His heritage was real, it was not partial and he typified the American Dream. The family went from being coopers, to bar owners, to mayors, to senators, to the president.”

The visit to Galway

Kennedy’s pride in his Irish background manifested itself in his attitude towards visiting the country. Kennedy was to tour Europe in 1963 and wanted Ireland included in the visit. His advisors argued against it, saying there were “no votes in Ireland”, but the president was insistent.

Likewise Galway (and Limerick ) were not originally included on the schedule of events. However political pressure from west of the Shannon eventually saw the cities included. The event proved a huge boost for the self image of Galway and its people, but was also not without moments of farce.

Kennedy was flown into The Sportsground on College Road by helicopter at 11.15am. Even by Irish weather standards it was cold and unseasonable for that time of year.

On the pitch were more than 200 girls from the Convent of Mercy school, decked out in green, white, and gold and arranged to resemble the Irish flag. Kennedy remarks to his fellow passengers, including Taoiseach Seán Lemass, about the “shimmering wave” of children, although the children’s movements were largely an effect of the cold weather which had caused them to be “shivering”.

They were also nervous to be before the most powerful politician in the world, but according to Brendan McGowan, participants he has spoken to remember Kennedy putting them at their ease before asking them to “sing a song”.

Kennedy was greeted by the then Mayor of Galway Patrick Ryan and Bishop Michael Browne, as well as by Covent of Mercy nuns. From there he boarded a motorcade, to take him by open top car towards Eyre Square for an official welcome.

Upon getting into the car, Galway photographer Stan Shields, on his first major assignment, attempted to take a picture of Kennedy. He managed to get up close to the man, balancing himself on the front seats as Kennedy sat in the back. The president’s security though moved in to remove the Galwegian but Kennedy stopped them, saying, “It’s OK, he’s a friend” and allowing Shields to take his photographs.

The motorcade made its way from College Road and past the northern end of Eyre Square. This route, and the subsequent drive through Williamsgate Street, Shop Street, Bridge Street, Dominick Street, and onto the Prom in Salthill, was thronged by thousands of people. Kennedy also took a moment to pop into a house on Forster Street to say ‘Hello’ to members of the Mayor’s family.

It is estimated that 100,000 were on the streets to see Kennedy. The population of the city at the time was 25,000, but people came from all over County Galway and Connacht came to the event. Although for years afterwards plenty of people claimed to have “shook Kennedy’s hand” who never there.

The formal ceremony at Eyre Square became the visit’s most controversial moment. A long speech was read to the president by Mayor Daly, but it was entirely as Gaeilge, a language Kennedy neither spoke nor understood. To compensate for this the American was given a translation to read.

Kennedy was made the ninth freeman of the city and given presents of a replica of the Great Galway Mace and a scroll of his Freedom of the City. The scroll was also as Gaeilge, with no accompanying translation.

Brendan McGowan notes how there were outraged letters to the local papers at the time. Many felt the use of Gaeilge was disrespectful to the president and the official welcome should have at least been bi-lingual. Many felt Galway Corporation had been cynical in its use of the language.

“One letter asked ‘Does the city council use Irish in its meetings? No, it doesn’t. So why did they use it here?’” says Brendan. “However others thought it was great, saying it gave Irish great prestige and a chance to be heard on the world stage.”

Kennedy’s speech by contrast was short. Although today it comes across as sentimental and stage-Irish, it was a masterclass in political seduction, showing how well the president both knew and could work a crowd.

“If the day was clear enough, and if you went down to the bay, and you looked west, and your sight was good enough, you would see Boston, Massachusetts,” Kennedy told the thousands in Eyre Square. “And if you did, you would see down working on the docks there some Doughertys and Flahertys and Ryans and cousins of yours who have gone to Boston and made good.”

He then asked: “I wonder if you could perhaps let me know how many of you here have a relative in America, who you would admit to - if you would hold up your hand?” [at this point every hand in the square is said to have shot up] I don’t know what it is about you that causes me to think that nearly everybody in Boston comes from Galway. They are not shy about it, at all.”

Kennedy concluded by saying: “If you ever come to America, come to Washington and tell them, if they wonder who you are at the gate, that you come from Galway. The word will be out and when you do, it will be ‘Cead Mile Fáilte’, which means ‘One hundred thousand welcomes!’.”

The motorcade made its way through cheering crowds out towards Salthill. When the president was informed where he was going, he asked “What’s Salthill?” “It’s a seaside resort,” came the reply. Kennedy looked out from the car and saw a grey-green sea churned by wind and waves.

“Only a Spartan would do it!” he said of the idea of swimming in Galway Bay.

Taoiseach Lemass got a laugh out of the remark but thought better than relaying it to the Galway tourist office and An Bord Fáilte.

The motorcade came to a stop along the Prom, where Toft Park and the Atlantaquaria now is. From here Kennedy was greeted by a flotilla of boats from the Navy and local fishermen, while a band played ‘Galway Bay’. The president boarded his helicopter for the next stage of his State visit. It was 12.30pm.

Five months later Kennedy was dead from an assassins bullet.

‘You had to be there’

For those who witnesssed Kennedy’s visit, it was a major occasion, something to boast about and look back on fondly. Many also speak about it as the moment Galway, previously a sleepy, stagnant city, whose best days lay back in THE 1600s, returned to life. That a US president would visit gave the city and its citizens a sense of pride and hope for the future, and a much needed boost of confidence. Undoubtedly Kennedy’s informal, personal, style did much to create this.

However the longer term impact of Kennedy’s visit was negligible and it has became a personal memory and historical fact rather than a cultural and collective memory. This is evidenced by the subsequent handling of memorialising the 1963 visit.

In August 1965, the green area of Eyre Square was renamed Kennedy Park and a profile bust of the slain president, set in a large slab of stone, complete with an inscription, was erected on the site where Kennedy was made of Freeman of Galway. An artist’s depiction of him was also erected beside a stained glass window of Jesus Christ in the then newly opened Galway Cathedral.

Today nobody calls Kennedy Park, Kennedy Park. The green area is always referred to by the area in which it is located - Eyre Square. The monument collapsed in the mid-1970s and the bust and inscription were relocated. Today it is found in the park’s sculpture garden. The inscription, saying this is where Kennedy was made a Freeman, has been rendered incorrect by virtue of its current location.

The depiction of Kennedy in the Cathedral, although loved by American visitors, is seen as an embarrassment by many Galwegians.

Indeed the controversy began soon after the visit.

Kennedy’s time in Galway was seen by An Bord Fáilte as an opportunity to promote the city and in the years that followed Eyre Square and Salthill were revamped, with the Bord providing generous funding. However Kennedy’s monument required moving the statue of Pádraic Ó Conaire, which was to be relegated to some insignificant spot in the square.

“There was uproar!” says Brendan McGowan. “The authorities had no idea this would cause so much trouble. People would not stand for the Ó Conaire statue being removed and demanded it retain a position of prominence, which had to be acceded to. Kennedy may have been an Irish-American done good, but he wasn’t a local boy like Ó Conaire, and that says something.”

A curious coincidence

One of the more bizarre facts and coincidences of the event is that Galway links Kennedy with the man many believe was his assassin - Lee Harvey Oswald. Both men had been in Galway within two years of each other.

In the summer of 1961, Oswald was aboard the SS Massdam which sailed from Rotterdam and stopped in Galway before continuing to New York. Oswald may not have disembarked during the stopover, but like Kennedy his time in the vicinity of Galway was brief.

Events to mark the visit

The Galway City Museum will mark John F Kennedy’s visit with two events on Saturday. The first is as 12 noon and is the screening of the documentary film, The Columban Fathers Present President Kennedy In Ireland, a professional film shot in colour and featuring scenes from the Galway visit.

At 2pm Brendan McGowan will give an illustrated talk, JFK In Galway, about the visit and the background to it, with contemporary photographs and film footage.

Places for both events are limited and early booking is advised through 091 - 532460.

Brendan has also compiled an on-line exhibition about JFK and the Galway visit

on www.ourirish heritage.org/page_id__433_path__.aspx It can also be accessed by Googling

Mo Ghaillimh Féin


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