John Fitzgerald Kennedy, America’s first Irish-Catholic president, received a rapturous welcome as he began an emotional four-day visit to his ancestral homeland on June 26th, 1963.
After landing at Dublin Airport, his first day was spent meeting dignitaries at a formal reception and enjoying a parade through Dublin, where hundreds of thousands lined the streets to cheer him.
It was on the second day of his trip that ‘JFK’ travelled to Dunganstown in County Wexford, from where his great grandfather, Patrick Kennedy, migrated to America in 1848. His ancestors on his mother’s side, the Fitzgeralds, also hailed from the Emerald Isle, having left County Limerick bound for America around 1850.
President Kennedy had always been proud of his Irish roots, which helped him win huge popular support among the millions of Americans whose own ancestors left Ireland to escape famine, hardship and persecution by the British. When the President returned to Ireland, the people welcomed him as one of their own.
Thousands of well-wishers cheered and waved American flags on his arrival at Wexford town, where a 300-strong boys’ choir greeted him by singing “The Boys of Wexford”. When the President left his bodyguards to join in the second chorus, scores of onlookers, including some in the President’s official party, burst into tears!
Later he was driven to the nearby port of New Ross, where in a speech at the quayside he said: “When my great-grandfather left here to become a cooper in East Boston he carried nothing with him except two things – a strong religious faith and a strong desire for liberty. I am glad to say that all of his grandchildren have valued that inheritance.”
Accompanied by two of his sisters, the President then made the five-mile journey to Dunganstown, where they met 15 of their cousins at the Kennedy ancestral homestead – a small croft building and farm. They included the then owner of the property, Mary Ryan, who welcomed him with a kiss.
Tea had been laid out on trestle tables in the yard underneath a homemade banner which declared “Welcome Home Mr President”. After about an hour chatting with his relatives over tea and cake, JFK raised his cup of tea to propose a toast to “all those Kennedys who went and all those Kennedys who stayed”.
The family home in Dunganstown was turned into a museum in 1999 and remains a popular tourist destination. JFK would later describe his trip to Ireland as “the best four days of my life”.
Sadly, the Irish joy at “their President’s” visit was to be shortlived. Just five months later, on November 22nd 1963, JFK was shot and killed as his motorcade passed through Dallas, Texas, on his way to a political festival. The long-distance assassination by former US Marine Lee Harvey Oswald shook the world and even today is the source of many conspiracy theories about Kennedy.