On the early evening of Friday 22 November a stunned Ireland learned that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. The President’s visit to Ireland only five months earlier had captured the imagination of every man, woman and child in the country. Now their icon was dead.
Taoiseach Sean Lemass’s Private Secretary Ronan O’Foghlú found it difficult to draft the telegram of condolence Lemass wished to send to Jackie Kennedy. Through the dark winter evening in Government Buildings, with news from Dallas still coming in, O’Foghlú composed draft after draft. He tried to find the words to convey the loss the United States had suffered.
O’Foghlú’s first draft, written as President Johnson and Jackie Kennedy flew in Air Force One back to Washington with Kennedy’s body on board, caught in full the immediate horror of the assassination:
I am unable to find words adequate to express describe the shock (horror) with which I heard the news of the President’s death. My colleagues and I in the Irish government are shattered by this terrible event.
It was not enough; O’Foghlú redrafted:
I am unable to find words adequate to describe the horror with which I heard the news of the
President’soutrage which caused the President his life. My colleagues in the Irish government and I are shattered.
These drafts capture the atmosphere of these bewildering hours. The words O’Foghlú scored out – ‘shock’; ‘horror’; ‘shattered’ – convey the raw emotion of the moment. Eventually O’Foghlú wove personal grief with statesmanly gravitas and Lemass consoled the President’s grieving widow that:
It was with profound shock that I learned of the tragic death of the President. The world has today lost a great statesman and leader and the USA its finest citizen. During his visit to Ireland last June, and my very recent visit with him in Washington I had the privilege of getting to know personally his great qualities, his courage, his integrity and his sense of high purpose. My colleagues in the Irish government and I, extend to you and to your family our most heartfelt sympathy in your recent tragic bereavement.
Sean F. Lemass
The telegram was sent at 10.15pm. Lemass then contacted President Johnson, expressing the Irish government’s profound shock at the ‘passing of an outstanding President, a wise and courageous world leader and a great American’. From Aras an Uachtaráin President de Valera told Johnson that the whole Irish nation was in grieving and sent its sympathy to the American people for the loss of a great leader.
The most intimate of the four official telegrams sent from Dublin that November night was from de Valera to Jackie Kennedy. Its message was personal, almost fatherly:
The whole Irish people mourn in sympathy with you. Their hearts go out to you and we pray that the soul of your husband who had become so dear to us here may now be with God in Heaven and that the Holy Spirit may give you His consolation in this hour of terrible sorrow for you.
Kennedy’s assassination was a deeply personal loss for Ireland and over the coming days messages of condolence and support poured out from Ireland to Jackie and the members of the Kennedy family. In his words the ageing Irish President had caught the collective spirit of the Irish people.
As the tricolour flew at half-mast on official buildings across Dublin on 23 November, the Government agreed, on Lemass’s recommendation, that, following constitutional practice, President de Valera could leave the state to attend Kennedy’s funeral in Washington on 25 November.