I'm possibly one of the youngest people alive who has a distinct recollection of John F. Kennedy's visit to Ireland in the summer of 1963. I was eight years old at the time. Today marks the 44th anniversary of Kennedy's departure from Ireland at the end of his visit.
One very representative memory actually came from my eighteen year old cousin who was staying in our house as a student in Dublin. She set off on her bicycle to Dublin airport to try to see the President. She left late and was warned by my mother that she would see nothing due to all the crowds. In any event she returned home after a few hours in a high state of excitement. My cousin related to us how she had been peddling along the road on the way to the airport when to her shock she saw the presidential cavalcade approaching up ahead. Stumbling off her bicycle she stood as a lone isolated figure on the roadside and began waving at the big limousine. To her utter amazement President Kennedy spotted the tall attractive lass with the bicycle on the roadside and waved back to her! Well I don't think my cousin could have felt any better if she had been given a personal autograph from the four Beatles!
It's hard to get across today to people how hugely important the Kennedy visit was at the time. Kennedy helped to teach all age groups in Ireland to stop being shy and introverted as part of a small nation. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a great grandchild of Irish emigrants. In many ways he remained a very pure Irish figure from both his paternal and maternal roots. Here he was coming back to Ireland as president of the most powerful nation on Earth. And he was one of us. Plus he was charming, full of humour, young, tall and handsome and had time for everyone he met. It's often a dull cliche when Americans say they love Ireland but there is ample evidence that Kennedy's love was genuine and heartfelt. Personal stories abound of him making time to mingle longer than scheduled with so many local people during his visit.
All his speeches including the address to the Irish Parliament were powerful and easy to follow - even for me as an eight year old kid. He was a great motivator, he respected everything Ireland had achieved and showed us we can reach any goals we dream of. Kennedy himself was living proof of this.
Some of you will remember the idolatry the man enjoyed in Ireland in the 1960s following his visit and indeed his assassination that same year. In our house and most others there were pictures of Kennedy on the wall which enjoyed a respect and reverence only narrowly beaten in intensity by the Sacred Heart of Jesus picture. There was open weeping when Kennedy died and everyone in Ireland from my age upwards can tell you exactly what they were doing when they heard of his shooting.
I don't think it is any exaggeration to say that Kennedy's presidency was the genesis of considerable tangible American commercial interest in Ireland coupled with a growing self-belief that we Irish could stand tall with any nation.