‘It was a scandal the way people waited in vain to see President Reagan and all they saw was a hand at the window,” lamented the late Cllr John F King at the first city council meeting following the visit of President and Mrs Reagan to Galway on June 2 1984.
There was a chorus of agreement around the table. Cllr Bridie O’Flaherty said that she had two daughters living in America. They had phoned her to say how ashamed they were to see the American flag burned in the streets of Dublin. “It was very unjust, very unfair, and very wrong to burn that flag,” she added irately.
Ald Gerry Molloy said that Bishop Michael Browne ‘would have turned in his grave’ at the thought of the reception Galway gave to the President of America. Mayor Michael Leahy said he had received a telegram from the Irish Heritage Association of Chicago asking him to ensure the president received a proper ‘Céad Mile Fáilte’. As others spoke in that vein, Ald Michael D Higgins was straining at the leash to speak.
“I too had a letter from America,” he said, “from an Irish American woman living in Nevada, and she praised Ireland for her protest.” The alderman went on to say that when he was Mayor of Galway he visited refugee camps in Central America and saw the results of Reagan’s policies.” I am not in the business of amnesia,” he said.
There was no doubt that the city was in a dilemma. It had invited President Reagan to come to Galway in 1984, to mark the city’s quincentennial celebrations. Eight hundred years previously King Richard III granted Galway the rights to hold markets, thus having the power to collect taxes, and to run its own affairs.
It was a significant historical anniversary. The city, and historian TP O’Neill, grabbed the opportunity as a superb moment to project Galway’s place as a welcoming city on the edge of the Atlantic, steeped in centuries of trade and commerce. Following his invitation from Taoiseach Charles Haughey, President Reagan said that he was delighted. ‘There is nothing Nancy and I would like to do more than to visit your country,’ he replied.
Prior to his visit he issued a proclamation outlining how the city’s ‘importance as an international trading centre gave Medieval Galway a cosmopolitan flavour perhaps unique in Ireland’. It went on to extol our values for education, the arts, and despite the dark times of the Williamite wars, and the desperation of the mid 19th century, ‘its survival as a centre for culture, education and industry enjoys the admiration of all who have a special affection for Ireland’. He generously called upon the ‘people of the United States to join in celebrating and honouring Galway quincentennial with appropriate ceremonies and activities.’
Fáilte Ireland, in its wildest dreams, could not have imagined a more brilliant advertisement for Ireland. The president himself was urging Americans to come!
But no sooner had the visit been announced than Bishop Eamonn Casey called a press conference in Dublin. Because of American policies in Central America, there was ‘no way’ he could welcome Ronald Reagan to Ireland or to Galway. It was only four years after the murder of Archbishop Romero of San Salvador, and the riots and killing at his funeral which Casey witnessed. The bishop was emphatic in his anger. He sparked a massive anti Reagan demonstration in Galway on June 2 1984.
The arrival of an American president had all the bizarre attendances that would accompany the coming to earth of Zeus, the supreme ruler of the ancient Gods. The president has power over the skies and all the earth. At his command mighty thunders would flash, and lightning would roll, wreaking havoc. Somehow that power was challenged in Galway that day.
Some 2,000 Garda and Army personnel were protecting the route which Reagan passed through in a convoy of darkened presidential state cars (nicknamed ‘The Beasts’ ). At one stage he managed to wave a hand through a window.
Other cars followed with men in trench coats standing on platforms outside the cars. In one car a man sat with a briefcase, supposedly the trigger for a nuclear war.
An estimated 2,000 protestors had gathered around the cathedral, many with painted, skeleton faces. There were hundreds of posters and daubed messages. People chanted slogans and insults, black balloons were released over the city.
The official welcome and conferring of an honorary degree was held in the quadrangle of the university. Armed guards stood on the rooftops. ‘The great and the good’ of Galway were sitting on raked seating, while 800 journalists from all over the world recorded the scene.
Zeus himself never let on that he was in the least bit inconvenienced by all the fuss and security. He was charming and witty. Mrs Zeus looked at him with affection all the time. Just as the ceremony was coming to a close the sky opened. Not to elevate the Zeuses, as one might expect, but to release a downpour of good old reliable Galway rain. There was a mad rush for shelter, and Zeus was spirited away.
NOTES: Casey did allow some diplomatic niceties however. Dean Michael Spellman attended the official reception for the Reagans on behalf of the diocese. The bishop himself was busy with confirmations at Mernue.
Next week: The most extraordinary letter that a bishop ever wrote to his people.
GALWAY’S MOOD FOR REAGAN SUBDUED
GALWAY, Ireland, June 2— The thing you noticed today in Galway was the police - at least 1,400 of them, packed into a few square blocks at the center of a city that has a population of only 27,000 - a huge presence of men in blue trenchcoats.
At some places along the route followed by President Reagan’s motorcade, there were more policemen than spectators. At most points the police had not even bothered to put up metal barricades to hold the crowds back.
And even at Eyre Square, where the largest number of well-wishers assembled, the mood was subdued, strangely un-Irish, with polite applause and a flutter of plastic Irish and American flags rather than full-throated shouting and cheering.
President and Mrs. Reagan waved from the back of their closed limousine, but most people on the sidewalk barely caught a glimpse of them as they sped past toward University College, Galway, where Mr. Reagan received an honorary degree and made a brief speech.
It was his only public appearance, lasting for less than two hours, on what had been billed as ‘’the President’s first full day in Ireland.’’
Triumphal visits by John F. Kennedy 20 years ago and by Pope John Paul II five years ago, both of which drew crowds many times as large as today’s, were recalled by people in the crowd.
A souvenir seller whose business was slack remarked, ‘’Bring back the Pope.’’
‘Outbreak of Violence Feared’
‘’Disappointing,’’ said a young schoolteacher wearing a Reagan sweatshirt. ‘’People never got excited about this visit, and some of the ones who did were afraid of violence.’’
Violence was a notable absentee, except for a scuffle or two between the police and onlookers. But, as expected, there were a number of protests and demonstrations against the President and his foreign policy, especially his stand on nuclear weapons and his policies in Central America.
A number of faculty members stayed away from the President’s speech at the university, protesting the honorary degree to Mr. Reagan. The Convocation of the National University of Ireland, of which the campus here is a part, voted overwhelmingly to condemn the award, and some graduates burned their diplomas at rallies.
‘Shultz Trip Is Applauded’
Bishop Eamonn Casey of Galway, who also refused to attend the ceremony, said he was heartened by the news of the meeting Friday between Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Daniel Ortega Saavedra, coordinator of the Nicaraguan junta. But he said he could still not bring himself to honor ‘’the head of a Government that gives aid to murderers.’’
Bishop Casey has worked and traveled extensively in El Salvador, as have many Irish missionaries.
Demonstrators who had hoped to disrupt the ceremony in the university quadrangle were kept a quarter-mile away, confined by the police to a side street and a parking lot - all but invisible to the President as he rode past well out of earshot of the assembly.
A thousand or more people gathered there an hour before Mr. Reagan’s arrival, a mixture of antinuclear campaigners, left-wing politicians, nuns, monks and others. Some had painted their faces to look like skulls. Others carried posters, including two nuns whose banner said, ‘’We are mourning the 50,000 dead in El Salvador.’’
As speaker after speaker denounced Mr. Reagan as a warmonger, hundreds of black balloons were released.
‘’Ronnie Reagan is no good!’’ the crowd chanted. ‘’Send him back to Hollywood!’’ and later, ‘’Ronald Reagan, C.I.A., how many kids did you kill today?’’