Rare artefacts from John F. Kennedy’s 1963 state visit to Ireland have been donated to an exhibition in Queen’s by Dan Fenn, an aide who worked closely with the president during his short time in the White House. A handwritten poem about the river Shannon which the President scribbled on the back of a tour schedule is included in the donation. Mr. Kennedy had copied out the poem after hearing it recited by Sinead De Valera, wife of Irish President Eamon De Valera.
A copy of the speech delivered by the 35th US President to the Dail on June 25th 1963, only five months before his assassination, is among the collection going on display in the exhibition in Queen’s New Library. It will also showcase a selection of pictures taken during the five day state visit to Ireland.
The artefacts were transported to Belfast by Mr. Fenn, who founded the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston. Mr. Fenn, a Boston native who lectures at the Harvard School of Business, was a staff assistant at the Whitehouse during the Kennedy presidency. He was invited to Ireland to deliver the inaugural JFK Memorial Lecture at Queen’s, and to provide leadership training to officials from Stormont’s Department of Social Development. He was accompanied by his son Peter, who is a political advisor to current US President Barack Obama and a commentator on political affairs in America. Peter Fenn also spoke at Queen’s during the visit.
The iconic Irish-American President remains a popular figure in Ireland, and Mr. Fenn stressed Mr. Kennedy’s close affiliation with the country of his ancestors. “Jack had a real love affair with Ireland,” he said. “I remember during the planning of his visit to Ireland one of his aides joked with him that the real reason he wanted to go was for a vacation and to have some fun. Jack turned to him and said: ‘That’s right, and I’m going!’ He had very warm, close ties with this land, both north and south.”
Mr. Fenn, (86) went on to describe his shock at the President’s untimely death, at only 46. “I was just totally numb after his death,” he recalled. “On the Saturday after he died I remember watching people take his rocking chair out of the Oval Office – that was all I wanted to see of that. It was just so painful.”
These painful emotions were sharpened by the recent death of the last living Kennedy brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, who passed away earlier in the month. As a close friend of the extended Kennedy family, Mr. Fenn admitted to feeling similar emotions on the senator’s death. “Jack was great fun to be around, as was Teddy – they were just wonderful people to know,” he said. “It was a strange coincidence that I worked on the arrangements for Jack’s funeral, and my granddaughter, who was working as an intern in Teddy’s office, worked on his funeral service. It’s sort of come full circle.”
Despite the death of the last politically active Kennedy, Mr. Fenn expressed his hopes that their political legacy would continue to reverberate well into the future. “I am reminded of the phrase, ‘men die but the dream lives on’. And I’m sure that will continue to be the case. Young people, who of course didn’t know Jack – it was their parents and grandparents who were around at that time – are still intensely interested in JFK and those years. It was the optimism, the enthusiasm for that era that still catches people’s hearts and minds today.”
An example of the lasting appeal of the Kennedy mystique was the enthusiasm with which the idea of a permanent memorial to John F. Kennedy in Queen’s was greeted by those attending the event. Chris Johnston, a former student of Mr. Fenn’s in Harvard, helped to organize the event. “The Kennedy memorial will celebrate the legacy and values of JFK,” he said. “It would be hoped that such a memorial in Belfast will inspire a new generation of political and civic leaders locally.” Mr. Fenn said he hoped to convince the current curator of the Boston-based museum to release more artefacts to Queen’s in order to extend the exhibition.
This enthusiasm was echoed by Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie, who hoped her staff could learn a lot from Mr. Fenn’s political experience, and especially from his time working with the Kennedy administration. “They wanted to look after those who were deprived, disadvantaged and marginalised and in the DSD we are also trying to bring communities together by tackling disadvantage and deprivation,” she said.
There has been some controversy in the US over the political legacy of Edward Kennedy, amidst conservative accusations that President Obama has used the senator’s death to shore up his stuttering campaign for healthcare reform. “The Democrats are playing the death card again, wrapping their wildly unpopular healthcare bill in the sentimental gauze of Ted Kennedy’s memory,” said Laura Ingraham, a conservative commentator. “It is disgusting.” A spokesman for the President dismissed these allegations, stating that “Our country has lost a beloved leader, and the politics and implications of that are the last thing on the president’s mind right now.” But despite this political squabbling, it is evident that the lasting legacy of the Kennedys in Ireland has been overwhelmingly positive.