BY EMMA EDWARDS
Headline in the Irish Examiner, 24 August 1924
The south-east tourist industry has reaped great currency out of the visit of an American president in 1963. However, what is perhaps less well known is that the visit of the 35th president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was preceded in 1962 by the visit of the 34th. Dwight D. Eisenhower was no longer a sitting president when he visited Wexford in 1962 but his visit emanated from a gesture of thanksgiving and commemoration during the course of his presidency. In 1956 a gift from the ‘people of the United States’ was unveiled on Crescent Quay, Wexford by President of Ireland Seán T. O’Kelly (who himself had married not one but two Wexford women from the nationalist Ryan dynasty, first Mary Kate and then following her death, her sister Phyllis). The bronze statue of Commodore John Barry was designed by William Wheeler and shipped to Ireland on board the U.S.S Charles S. Sperry. Barry, referred to as the ‘father of the United States navy’, was born in 1745 in Ballysampson, Tacumshane, Co. Wexford. Having gone to see as a child of ten he settled as a merchant sailor in Philadelphia and was a ship’s master by age 21. With the outbreak of the War of Independence, he offered his services to the Continental Army. His ship the Black Prince was outfitted for naval service, renamed the Alfred and became the first ship in the Continental Navy. Commissioned as a captain he led the first American capture of a British ship and received a personal note of gratitude from General Washington. With the foundation of the U.S. Navy in 1794 Barry, though listed as the senior captain of the service, bore the courtesy title of commodore (the position of commodore was not formally created until 1862). He died in 1803.
The visit of JFK to Ireland in June 1963 is considered an iconic event due to the president’s Irish ancestry, his viewing of the ‘Kennedy homestead’ in Dunganstown, New Ross and to the poignancy of his promise to be ‘back in the spring time’ with the shooting in Dealey Plaza a mere five months away. Eisenhower’s visit to Wexford was undertaken at less notice, fanfare and was bedevilled with setbacks. Eisenhower was due to make a tour of Europe in late summer 1962 when a visit to Ireland was discussed with the U.S. ambassador to Ireland. Wexford Corporation had to respond to charges from an aggrieved public and sceptical press that it had declined to receive Eisenhower. In a statement issued to the press, the Corporation claimed that ‘when the matter was first considered, the members genuinely felt that they could not do justice to such a distinguished person in mid-week.’ Eisenhower himself was also perturbed to learn that there was no airport close to Wexford. The Corporation decided to change its mind in response to ‘the wholehearted support they have now been offered from all sections of the community.’ Such support was expressed in erection of ‘We like Ike’ posters on the walls and streets of Wexford town, as reported by a journalist from the Irish Press. At a special meeting of Wexford Corporation on 16 August Alderman K.C. Morris expressed his hope that the visit would ‘clear up all the misunderstandings which had got wide publicity and should prove that Wexford at no time turned down the General’s visit’ and plans were put in place for Eisenhower’s helicopter to land on the G.A.A pitch two miles outside Wexford town. Eisenhower made quite literally a flying visit, arriving first in Dublin to stay in the Gresham Hotel and on the following day enjoying a luncheon with President de Valera. The former Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe arrived in Wexford on 23 August by helicopter to a town bedecked by bunting and a higher than average population of American tourists. Cheered on from streets and doorways, Eisenhower arrived to lay a wreath at the Barry Statue. He announced that he has been ‘a dismal failure’, explaining to a crowd soaked through by a torrential downpour that he had previously enjoyed a reputation for bringing fine weather with him. Gardaí and security men reportedly fought a losing battle with photographers. According to the calculations of an Irish Examiner journalist present, Eisenhower’s speech lasted less than two minutes in which he praised Barry as ‘a great patriot’ and then spoke to the Mayor of Wexford for four minutes, the latter also making a short speech. Whisked away for lunch in the Talbot Hotel, Eisenhower was back in his helicopter twenty minutes later. President Kennedy paid his respects to the Barry statue less than a year later giving Wexford Corporation further exposure to the executive branch of the U.S. government. Barry’s statue still stands on Crescent Quay looking out onto the Slaney estuary; other statues were erected in Franklin Square, Washington D.C. and at the entrance to Independence Hall, Philadelphia.
Irish Examiner, Irish Independent, Irish Press, Irish Times, Aug.-Sep. 1963.
David Murphy, ‘John Barry’ Dictionary of Irish Biography.