Monday 20 May 2019

What did we learn about JFK visit?

JFK: A homecoming (RTE1)

There were moments during JFK: A Homecoming, Ryan Tubridy's authored documentary about John F Kennedy's four-day visit to Ireland in June, 1963, when we could have been watching a discarded episode of Ireland's Greatest -- or, at least, Irish America's Greatest.

Over the years, Tubridy has often mentioned that he's obsessed with Kennedy. While it's true that one of his relatives was instrumental in setting up the visit, the fact that his interest in the man runs so deep is still unusual.

Born in 1973, a full decade after the event, into an Ireland on the cusp of radical change, Tubridy belongs to a generation for whom the importance and relevance of Kennedy was rapidly receding. (For the record, I was just eight months old when Kennedy visited and it never impinged to any great degree on our consciousness when we were growing up.)

Then again, there's always been more than a touch of the throwback about Tubridy, with his sharp suits, middle of the road taste in music and lounge-lizard suavity. Were he a smoker, you can imagine him flicking open a gold cigarette case, lighting up with a gold-plated Ronson and sitting back to relax with a vodka martini.

"I've always wanted to know more," he said at the top of the documentary. "Did it [the visit] affect us? Did it affect Kennedy, or was it all done for show?"

In truth, Tubridy never really nailed down an answer to his own question; while the film was diverting, the tone throughout was superficial. Tubridy has, of course, written a book about JFK's visit, published this week, and this film functioned more as a promo for that than a primer on Kennedy.

The observations from the contributors, who included historians and ordinary eyewitnesses, tended to the obvious and hackneyed. Wexford-born writer Colm Toibin, who was among the crowd when Kennedy visited New Ross, the town from which his forebears had sailed to America, said: "He was the most glamorous person I'd ever seen. It was as if we were living in black and white, and then suddenly -- Technicolor!"

At the time, there was still a lot of resentment in Washington over Ireland's neutral stance during the Second World War.

Kennedy's visit, suggested Toibin, was like America saying, "We forgive you, you're back in the fold."

Except America wasn't really saying anything; as JFK's advisor Ted Sorenson pointed out, this was the president's baby all the way. JFK's people didn't even want him making the trip, reasoning that he already had the Irish vote in America sewn up.

Kennedy had been to Ireland three times previously. As a young correspondent for the Hearst newspaper group in the 1940s, he described in print "the tall, angular figure of Mr De Valera".

Sixteen years before his official trip, Kennedy had spent three weeks researching his roots in Wexford and met his cousin, Mary Ryan. Her grandson recalled that she thought the future president was just "a strange American", pale, skinny and in need of a good feed. Pamela Churchill, the socialite who was Kennedy's companion on the trip, is said to have found the rough-and-ready rural Irish deeply distasteful.

Rather than having any lasting political significance, the '63 visit, suggested historian Diarmaid Ferriter, was "an indulgence" for Kennedy. "We completely overplayed the Irishness of Kennedy," he suggested. "He was raised as a New Englander."

The biggest impact of the visit, it seems, was on Ireland's tourist industry. "The day Kennedy came was the day Galway changed from being a sleepy town to a thriving city," said photographer Stan Shields, who covered the visit for the Connacht Tribune.

The strength of the documentary lay in the copious footage. Even at a remove of 47 years, the sight of throngs of people prostrating themselves before the matinee idol president can still inspire wonder -- and the occasional cringe.


JFK: A homecoming ***

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