Monthly Archives: November 2013

Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?

November 22 1963 was just another day – except that it was  a Friday. Friday was a  special day in our school. It was bath night and the following day being Saturday, there would be only a half day of classes, and we would have Tuckshop. With 11 weeks of the term already passed, we would  get home in another 4 weeks, so life was GOOD. Such were the thoughts of  a 15-year-old boarder in the St Louis Convent,Dún Lughaidh, Dundalk, Co Louth, Ireland on that day.

Three years earlier in November 1960, I had sat up all night with my father watching the results of the American Presidential Election. In a Donegal village, we sat into the small hours in front of our small black and white television watching what has turned out to be one of the most famous American election nights in history. It was the first presidential election in which Alaska and Hawaii  would participate, having become the 49th and 50th states the previous year. More importantly from our perspective, thousands of miles to the east of the USA, we were wondering if the charismatic, young , handsome Irish catholic could possibly be elected to the most powerful office in the world. It was riveting viewing with Kennedy’s initial commanding lead being hoovered up by Nixon as the hours passed. I will always remember that moment in the small hours when ‘Kennedy Wins’ came up  on the screen and my Dad’s total delight at the outcome. ‘ I don’t believe it ‘  I don’t believe it’  he exclaimed!  When he got over the initial excitement and disbelief, he explained to me how significant an event this was  – to have a Roman Catholic man, a man of Irish descent – elected to such high office was a great triumph for Catholics and for Ireland. That Kennedy’s paternal great grandfather had left Wexford in famine times and his maternal great grandfather had left Limerick in the 1850s, made the success even more significant. The Irish had ‘arrived’ and the sense of pride was palpable.

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Inauguration of President John F Kennedy, January 1961. Image Wikimedia Commons

A few years later, in June 1963 President John F Kennedy made the first visit of an American President to Ireland. Thousands flocked to see him and his every move was televised (apparently at his own request, as later transpired).  His young age and his good looks made him an instant ‘pop star’ in Ireland where our own President was in his 80s and speaking of ‘maidens dancing at the crossroads’. This was the first time that many of us had actually heard and realized that an Irish person could be proud of their deprived origins and could succeed. As a consequence,and astonishing as this may seem nowadays, pictures of the revered  and very handsome President  John Fitzgerald Kennedy, sometimes with his wife Jacqueline, were placed on walls in Irish homes alongside religious pictures of The Sacred Heart or of  a favoured Pope.

The Snug, Bradley’s, Barrack Street, Cork. Image courtesy Brian Mac Domhnaill

In this image,  two  pictures  of  John F Kennedy hang on the walls of  The Snug in Bradley’s Bar, Barrack Street Cork. The ‘snug’ as seen here was once the living room of the Bradley home and has remained unchanged despite the change of use. There was once a Sacred Heart picture in this room but that was removed when it became a pub.

Frank O'Donoghues House (5)Another image from Brian MacDomhnaill, whose interest in photographing abandoned houses led to the discovery of this picture of the Kennedy ‘s in an abandoned house in County Carlow. Interestingly, the photograph was taken in the deserted home of a  catholic priest.

Five months after the momentous and triumphant visit to Ireland,on that November Friday, we boarders in Dundalk were enjoying our 7 pm supper. Supper was generally considered the most enjoyable meal of the day in our convent school, where we seemed to be in an almost permanent state of hunger. We probably had  a bowl of baked beans and lots of bread and not so much butter, but the beauty of beans lay in the fact that butter was not required. After supper, we followed our daily routine of filing out of the refectory in total silence and making our way to the convent chapel for rosary. Along the ‘route’ prefects stood to ensure that silence was maintained, with the head girl standing by the window at the entrance to the chapel. As I approached the chapel door, Hanna, the head girl, beckoned me over and whispered to me that President Kennedy had been shot. I was reeling and in disbelief as we filed into our chapel seats but thought it was probably not serious.

At the beginning of prayers, it was announced that President Kennedy had in fact been shot dead. Not only that, but the nun said the consequences were potentially catastrophic with the almost total certainty of World War 3. The inference was that President Kennedy was martyred because he was a Roman Catholic and who but Communists would do such a thing. This, we were told, meant that our brothers and male relations would be called upon to fight the Russians, Catholics against Communists.  The Bay of Pigs missile crisis was still fresh in memory and the Communist threat was never far from our thoughts – didn’t we pray several times a day for the ‘conversion of Russia’?

Our school had 90 boarders aged between 12 and 18 – all of us many miles from home, with the only communication being by letter and a weekly telephone call on the one telephone in the school – a treat for those whose family were fortunate enough to have a telephone at home- many did not. As the Rosary began, someone started to cry. Very quickly,another began sobbing and in a matter of minutes total hysteria had gripped the assembled throng. This was undoubtedly brought about by the shock of the terrible news, but in no small measure by the announcement that  we were at war and all our male relatives – fathers, brothers, uncles, would have to stand up and fight and in all probability be killed. I can still hear the shrieks of one or two girls who were totally traumatized, as we were urged to pray and pray and pray.

My memory of that fateful day is frozen in time in that chapel and it did take several days for us to be reassured that all was well  and that perhaps our male family members were safe. Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested shortly after the shooting and he himself was shot dead on Sunday November 24.  On the following Monday afternoon we  got to watch the funeral on the school black and white television.  Images that stand out from the event are of the elegant veiled figure of Mrs Kennedy, her two small children the other Kennedy brothers, and the black riderless horse , with boots reversed, signifying the fallen leader.

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President Kennedy’s Family. Image Wikimedia Commons

JFKRiderless Horse

The Riderless Horse Image Wikimedia Commons

 A Guard of Honour of Irish Cadets was in attendance from Ireland at the request of Mrs Kennedy.

Irish Cadets

Irish Cadets form a Guard of Honour at the graveside. Image Irish Examiner

Many years later I stood at the simple grave of President John F Kennedy at Arlington Cemetery, overlooking the vista of  Washington D.C.  A simple Eternal Flame burns at his final resting place as a lasting memorial.

jfk_grave

By this time  however questions were being posed about the nature of his Presidential Campaign and his personal behaviour Although  his personality has been diminished and his image no longer graces the walls of Irish homes, the myth lives on, frozen in time by an assassins bullet on that Friday, a half  a century ago in November 1963.

Do you remember where you were when you heard that news?

I am very grateful to Brian Mac Domhnaill for sending me his photographs of  the pictures of the Kennedys that hung in Irish homes.

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Filed under Emigration from Ireland, Ireland, Irish American, Irish Diaspora, Irish History, Irish Traditions, Life in the 1960s, My Oral History, Significant World Events

Postcards from London, England – Remembrance Week

On a visit to London this week, I took the opportunity to pop along to Westminster to take a look at the Cenotaph which is a focus of Remembrance Sunday ceremonies in Britain. The London Cenotaph is in Whitehall,a wide street that houses many headquarters of government departments, and links the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) and Trafalgar Square. The Cenotaph was erected in memory of the fallen of World War 1, but has since been engraved with the dates of  both WW1 and WW2. It is however used to commemorate the fallen in all wars and it is here that they are remembered on the 2nd Sunday of November each year. Millions watch the poignant ceremony on television as Big Ben tolls the 11th hour, beginning the minute’s silence which is followed by the  sounding of the Last Post.

The wreaths make a colourful display that is retained for a number of weeks.

Just a short distance down the road at Westminster Abbey there  is the Field of Remembrance memorial garden, organized by the British Legion. First begun in 1928, the lawn is marked out in  250 – 300 plots, where poppy crosses are planted in memory of regiments and  armed services associations. The Field of Remembrance is located in front of Westminster Abbey and alongside St Margaret’s Church which is right beside the Abbey.

A list of the plots is provided

A list of the plots is provided

I think that it is hardly possible to look at the vast numbers of crosses planted here in each plot and not deplore the waste of  – mostly young – human life. In particular it is hard to look at the plots of regiments involved in recent and ongoing conflicts where there are often photographs of laughing, smiling  handsome young men,whose only presence on earth is now denoted by a small wooden cross. Regardless of feelings about the rights and wrongs of particular conflicts, I am left with a sense of appalling waste of life and deprivation of families and communities that each cross represents.

But the past is just the same-and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget. – Siegfried Sasoon ( 1919) 

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We are the dead, short days ago we lived…

At the 11th hour of the 11th  day of the 11th month in 1918, fighting in World War 1 officially came to an end, in accordance with the Armistice between Germany and the Allies. On the anniversary of this event, men and women who gave their lives  in conflicts are commemorated, and people all over the world wear poppies  in remembrance of them.

Irish Poppy Badge PNG (website)

The Irish Poppy Badge

The wearing of the Poppy in Ireland remains  a contentious issue, although it has become more popular  in recent years. Not so many years ago in this country, families of those who had gone to war were, often with good reason, reluctant to speak of their soldier sons, brothers, fathers, uncles.  The story of their loved ones was buried- lost and unspoken for decades. However,  there has been a gradual rehabilitation of those mostly young Irishmen who went off to fight in the British Army of World War 1,  some 35,000  of whom never came home.

The tradition of wearing the Poppy began back at the end of World War 1. A Canadian Doctor, Lt.Col John McCrae, having witnessed the death of friends and colleagues in Ypres, penned the haunting and imaginative poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’ on May 3, 1915, the day after he officiated at the burial of his best friend.

In Flanders Field - the iconic poem by

In Flanders Field – the iconic poem by John McCrae

Lt.-Col._John_McCrae_and_his_dog_Bonneau_Le_lieutenant-colonel_John_McCrae_et_son_chien_Bonneau

Lt-Col John McCrae and his dog Bonneau. Image Wikimedia Commons

John McCrae had noticed that poppies readily sprung up where the earth had been disturbed. May 1915 was a particularly warm month and it is thought that this facilitated the germination of thousands of poppies that had lain dormant in the ground until it was disturbed.  As anyone driving along motorways in Ireland can testify, poppies will readily colonize any patch of poor ground, and so it was in  the battlefields of Gallipoli, Belgium and France. Lands  devastated  and pock-marked by shelling, littered with the remains of human beings – total wastelands, described as ‘murdered nature’, by the American pilot, James McConnell who flew over Verdun – often produced blazing groups of red poppies.

Poppy Field on the Somme. Picture from the BBC.

Poppy Field on the Somme. Picture from the BBC.

Moina Belle Michael, (1869 – 1944) an American teacher,was so inspired by McCrea’s poem that  in 1918 she set about having the Flanders Field Poppy recognized as a symbol of remembrance of those who had lost their lives in  the war.  

Moina Michael Commemorative Stamp

Moina Michael Commemorative Stamp

Moina achieved her ambition and on September 29 1920, the American Legion agreed to use the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy as a national symbol of remembrance of those who did not return from war or who returned with physical or mental scars.

Moina Michael autobiography, The Miracle Flower. Picture from Amazon.com

Moina Michael autobiography,’The Miracle Flower. The story of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy’ Published in 1941. Image from Amazon.com

Another remarkable woman, Madame Anna Guérin, on a visit to the USA in 1920 was inspired by the efforts of Moina Michael and saw the  potential for raising funds by making and selling paper poppies to help French orphaned children and the war torn regions of France. She founded the ‘American and French Children’s League’ through which she organized French women, children and war veterans to make artificial poppies out of cloth. Anna sent thousands of poppies to be sold in America and then brought her campaign to all the countries that took part in the war. Canada adopted the poppy symbol in 1921 and in that year Anna herself went to London  to meet Field Marshall Earl Douglas Haig, founder and head of the British Legion who agreed to adopt the poppy as a symbol of the legion and the first British fund-raising poppy appeal was held in the run up to November 11 1921.

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The Tipperary Annual Remembrance takes place each September to honour Irish fallen,in all conflicts. The inscriptions on the arch are of Irish who have died in service in the uniforms of other countries

The poppy is now recognized as a symbol of remembrance in Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., Canada, South Africa, Singapore, Thailand, Germany, Poland, Russia, France, Belgium, India, China, Ireland, Israel and Pakistan  and its symbolism has evolved from one commemorating lives lost or destroyed  in World War 1, to  one of remembrance for all those who gave their lives in all conflicts.

Notwithstanding the general acceptance of the Poppy as a universal symbol of remembrance, there are many in Ireland who see it as nothing more than an emblem of British imperialism. Just  a couple of years ago I was berated in public for wearing a poppy on my coat. ‘Are you a Brit?’ challenged  a work colleague (who happened to be wearing a Liverpool Football Club jersey and is a daily reader of an English tabloid newspaper). I have never understood how men who signed up to join the army often simply as a means of getting paid employment to help support a large family at home, became ostracised because of a ‘green’ discourse in Ireland after Independence. Nor have  I understood why that ‘green’ discourse led to families being fearful  of  honouring their lost loved ones. All down the centuries,Irish men have traditionally fought in armies and wars across the world, as evidenced in the Soldiers and Chiefs exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland.  Even in 1926, some 40,000 people gathered in Dublin to honour the dead on Armistice day. There is a magnificent  image of crowds of people gathered for the occasion in the blog of Come Here to Me. which can be seen here . This post looks at  remembering the dead  and the republican response to it. Looking back at this story now, it looks very much like the commemoration of Armistice Day was, as we say here in the mid west , ‘bate out of us’ by men with guns.

The sacrifice made by our people is part of our heritage, so why will we not join with other nations across the world  on November 11 to recognize them?  Are we not sophisticated and independent enough to do this?  In 2011 I posted about Fr Gleeson and the iconic image of him on horseback giving a last blessing to the Munster Fusiliers here just hours before they were killed and wounded in their hundreds.

Last ab

The Blessing of the Munsters by Fr Gleeson on horseback, by Mattania

Fr Gleeson kept a diary, now  in the National Museum of Ireland. that captures the horrors of war. In it he wrote

Spent all night trying to console, aid and remove the wounded.  It was ghastly to see them lying there in the cold, cheerless outhouses, on bare stretchers with no blankets to cover their freezing limbs. … Hundreds lying out in cold air all night at Windy Corner.  No ambulances coming.  They come at last. – at daylight.” (May 10th ,1915) These words are now engraved on  one of the slabs that lime the entrance to the Peace Park at Messines that commemorates  the joint action of the 16th (Irish) and the 36th (Ulster) Divisions in June 1917.

Gleeson

Royal Dublin Fus 1915

Image from https://www.facebook.com/pages/Its-Time-To-Remember-200000-Brave-Irishmen Royal Dublin Fusiliers  leaving what is now Collins Barracks in Dublin, on their way to Gallipoli where weeks later they were slaughtered by the thousand

We must remember all of these Irishmen with pride – husbands, fathers, sons, uncles, lovers, neighbours, – not to glorify war but  rather to acknowledge the horror and obscenity of it, in every generation.

We are the Dead……. Short days ago
We lived,….. felt dawn,…… saw sunset glow,
  Loved and were loved, …….and now we lie
         In Flanders fields.

References

http://www.militaryheritage.ie/research/milmuseums/collins-articles/chaplain.htm

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Its-Time-To-Remember-200000-Brave-Irishmen/153705051393544?id=153705051393544&sk=photos_stream

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Filed under Ireland, Irish at War, Irish Heritage, Irish History