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.

Jfk_inauguration

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.

300px-JFK's_family_leaves_Capitol_after_his_funeral,_1963

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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23 Comments

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

23 responses to “Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?

  1. Excellent post. Thank you for remembering his Irish roots. I was in Houston, Texas.

  2. Great post SV – your personal recollections make the events so real. I’m aghast as to how the nuns thought that was an appropriate way to deliver the news though. Remarkable the affinity between JFK and Ireland in those days, and pride in his achievements. Ireland was still pretty much a backwater then.
    I was only 10 and don’t remember the events. But I do remember Larry Cunningham’s ‘The Emigrant’ being played a lot back then.

    • It was kinda the norm back then – we grew up often unprotected from the slings and arrows of life- for example, if anyone died we youngsters were expected to attend to dishes etc at the wake. Dead bodies were quite ‘normal’ to us! And we were immersed in the ‘reds under the bed’ ‘stuff’ back then and RC ruled – ok! He certainly was revered in this neck of the woods – but that too helped us exit the backwater and cast off the inferiority complex. The Larry Cunningham song is new to me – heavens! we surely do know how to tell stories in song!

  3. This is terrific, SV. I was only a few months old when Kennedy died, so I`ve no memory of that particular event. But, your post resonates with me hugely on the whole reverence in which the Kennedys were held in Ireland at that time. And oh! how scared we were of the Communists too! And of World War 3. Oh and pagan England! Yes, the nuns did their job very thoroughly indeed! 😉

    • They surely did a good job – I can remember being ‘afraid’ of those Soviets and of what might become of me when I ventured to the UK . But I boldly went – clutching my Child of Mary Medal for protection!

  4. Very nice post, thank you for sharing. Similar to USA but even more intense in Ireland. Like you, I will never forget this day, even though I have troubles with my memory, this day really sticks.

    I was only 9 going on 10 in fourth grade when the PA announcement at our Catholic grade was made to declare the awful news. I left a nice reply to this same question just a few days ago. I was having trouble sleeping, and at 3:30 AM was reading my mail when I came across a mail from the Wild Geese page to read and respond to “President Down: Where were you when the shots rang out?” You can see my reply at:
    http://thenewwildgeese.com/forum/topics/jfk-where-were-you-when-the-shots-rang-out?

    My reply is near the bottom of the first page there.

    All the best,
    James McNamara

    • Hi Jim – I red with great delight your post on the Wild Geese – with others there too. Interesting how those turbulent events resonated across the world. I recall seeing Bobby Kennedy s shooting recorded on a news-stand across the road from where I worked, and coming after MLK, it seemed that there were serious conflicts of interest in the USA.
      I am glad that you recorded your memory of the JFK assassination – oral history is critically important for future students of our past. Thank you for that. – Best to you – Angela

  5. I was nursing in S’pore and walking down the long hospital corridor and told Kennedy has been shot.I replied “but he was o.k when I left him” My date of the previous night was called John kennedy!!

  6. This topic, as you might imagine, has been on the air, radio and T.V., for many days now in America, and folks continue to weigh in with their opinions about a possible conspiracy as well as recalling where they were on that day. I appreciate your story, as it forms such an important parallel to our experiences “across the pond.” I find it fascinating to think about the repercussions simultaneously in Ireland, which wouldn’t have occurred to me then. My aunt, even as a mother of six young children, all two years apart, had tirelessly gone door to door for weeks working on J.F.K.’s campaign. The adults in our Irish-American Catholic family were thrilled at his win in the same way your Dad was. When President Kennedy was assassinated, like James McNamara, I was in fourth grade. My classmates and I were given the news over the intercom by our principal, but by then we already knew something awful had happened, as we could see our teachers crying and comforting each other outside in the joint hallway. Much is now a blur. It seemed that my family stared at the television continuously, dumbfounded, while school was cancelled and life as we had known it had stopped. This was my introduction to politics and the first memorable death that occurred in my lifetime, soon to be followed by my beloved aunt herself. It began a wave of public tragedies throughout my adolescence and throughout the Viet Nam war. James’ inclusion of that wonderful song, “Abraham, Martin, and John,” summed up the time so well. Our nation experienced a litany of loss of those who worked toward peace and inclusion, that eventually also took John Lennon, on our soil.

    • jpmtcc

      Thanks for that Janet,

    • It is quite fascinating how this major event impacted on our young lives and it would be a bit of challenge to come up with a similar possible scenario that would influence this generation for example. Television was in its infancy back then in Ireland, so news became more immediate and of course Vietnam was the first war to have been in our sitting rooms. They were turbulent times and definitely influenced me politically. I heard Jim’s song , Abraham, Martin & John on the radio last night as it happens. Not much has changed – what the world still needs is love! Thank you so much for your comment. Angela

  7. Beautifully written. I had no idea that Kennedy had this kind of reverence in Ireland. I can understand it, though. I just don’t think of other countries admiring a US President this much. I think Kennedy was the exception.

  8. WOW. What a powerful post. You are such a good writer, Silver Voice. I am glad I was able to get out of my neck of the woods and visit your blog in Ireland through WordPress. This post is weighty, in a redemptive sense. Heavy. The pictures are stellar. I am blessed by your blog. Peace in your holidays. T

    • Thank you so very much for such a pleasant comment. It made my day! The joys of wordpress – it takes us all over the world to new faces and places! Thank you for your good wishes which are reciprocated to you and yours and as ever, many thanks for dropping by!

  9. I have recently found your blog and can’t wait to read more! This is a great post and although I was just 3 at the time, I have listened to many other stories about that day. I wanted you to know that I nominated you for The Versatile Blogger Award and although you are not obligated to accept it, you are deserving!
    http://greetgrief.com/2013/12/18/the-versatile-blogger-award/

    • Thank you so very much for your kind words about my post.. I am truly honoured that you have considered me for this blogger award. Unfortunately time does not allow me to respond in the desired fashion to ”çhain letter’ nominations by nominating others and creating links to sites. I hope to drop by your blog over the holiday period and I hope that you can come back often. Merry Christmas!

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