BY PADDY HARTE, FORMER TD
TIMES were different back in 1963 when the visit of a US President brought the country to a virtual standstill for all the right reasons.
The State visit by John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a major event. This was a time when trans Atlantic flights into Dublin were a rarity. That Air Force One, carrying the Western World’s most famous and important leader was landing in our capital city filled everyone with pride and a great sense of excitement. JFK was being given a hero’s welcome, he was one of our own coming home.
I remember as a young Dail Deputy being carried along on the crest of this wave of excitement. In the corridors of power at Leinster House the final preparations were being put into place for the President of the United States to address both Houses of the Orieachtas.
Then there was the Official Garden Party at Aras An Uchtarain. My wife Rosaleen who was pregnant at the time had travelled to Dublin to accompany me to the garden party. She caused quite a stir in Austin’s Department Store in Derry when she let slip that she was looking for a special outfit to wear meeting President Kennedy.
I had a friend working as a Customs and Excise Officer at Dublin Airport, John Hanley, he and I used to play football together when he was stationed in Lifford in the 1950s. I decided to call him to see if there was anyway Rosaleen and myself could get in to see JFK at the airport. His response was “not a hope, the security is extremely tight”.
Then he held out a glimmer of hope: “if you have someone arriving in from Jersey it is the only flight landing today, you could be picking them up.” Rosaleen, myself and another Dail Deputy from Mayo, Miko Brown, made our way out to Dublin Airport in Miko’s new black Ford Consol car. There were few cars heading into the airport that day and sure enough we got through the Garda checkpoints with our story about the Jersey flight. John was waiting for us just outside the terminal building and directed us to a reserved parking spot.
He was in his officer’s uniform and brought us straight out onto the runway and behind the security barriers along with the dignitaries and press.
It was one of the most memorable events in my life, witnessing Air Force One touch down and JFK step onto the runway greeted by President DeValera. Then a Pan Am jet carrying the President’s entourage including his close confidante and Press Secretary Pierre Salinger. The President walked past us while we talked freely with Salinger. Our picture appeared in the national and possibly the international press the following day.
We quickly found ourselves part of the President’s entourage and in the cavalcade into Dublin, Miko Brown’s black limo style car didn’t look out of place. People were waving at us and wanting to shake our hands, we felt like film stars before we were finally stopped by a Garda and our cover blown.
I did get to witness in person the historical address in the Dail chamber and although I am in the picture that hangs proudly in Leinster House the picture at Dublin Airport has special significance for Rosaleen and myself and Miko Brown who sadly passed away some years ago. Rosaleen got to the garden party and was within a hair’s breath of shaking the tall, tan and charismatic President but because she was pregnant she stood back from the rush.
Of course sadly it was to be his last visit to Ireland. Our son was born a month after President Kennedy was assassinated. We called him John Fitzgerald Kennedy Harte. He will be 50 in December.
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