Irish town set for 50th anniversary of John F Kennedy visit

US President John F Kennedy Former US President John F Kennedy attends a tea party in his ancestral town of Dunganstown, outside New Ross in County Wexford, on 27 June 1963

As Northern Ireland prepares for the visit by President Obama and the G8 leaders later this month, a town in the Republic of Ireland is getting ready to commemorate another presidential visit.

Fifty years ago this month, President Kennedy made a trip back to his ancestral home in New Ross, County Wexford.

The tolling of the bell on the replica Dunbrody famine ship breaks the relative warm summer silence of New Ross harbour, as young French secondary students listen to a guide tell the story of the original Dunbrody.

It would have been on a ship like this that a young Patrick Kennedy, the late president's great-grandfather, left famine-stricken Ireland for a new life.

Sean Reidy, the chief executive of the JFK Trust, says the Kennedy story is remarkable.

"People left under great hardship. They arrived in America. But the story we tell is not just of them leaving. It's the story of what happened when they arrived and the onward development and progression of the Irish in America to the ultimate success of a great-grandson of a famine emigrant becoming president," he says.

All along the harbour front are reminders of JFK's visit 50 years ago.

There is a life-size bronze statue of him and a short distance away a bronze sculpture of the podium from which he made a short speech.

Eamonn Hore, the New Ross town manager, says that later this month an emigrant flame inside a large bronze globe will join the other pieces of sculpture.

"The emigrant flame will be lit on 22 June from Arlington, President Kennedy's graveside, the eternal flame. And the journey back will mirror the journey of his great-grandfather. The flame symbolises all Irish emigrants including the Kennedys, which is, perhaps, the greatest emigrant story of all," he says.

Up to 20,000 people are expected in New Ross on the day, including 31 of JFK's extended American family, at last count. The guests include his daughter, Caroline.

With President Obama also due to visit Ireland this month, former congressman Patrick Kennedy, a nephew of JFK and son of Ted, says there are many similarities between the two presidents.

He adds: "John F Kennedy was a young president and also the first Irish Catholic president. Barack Obama, also a young president, was the first African-American president. Both men inspired many people with their oratory."

Patrick Greenan Patrick Grennan lives in the JFK homestead and is looking forward to meeting his relatives

The Kennedy clan will also visit their old family homestead at Dunganstown, just outside New Ross, where a new museum will soon open to the public.

There to meet them will be Patrick Grennan, their Irish cousin, who lives there.

A shy man, he admits that meeting his self-confident American relatives can be both daunting and exhilarating.

He says: "I'm pretty excited about them coming. Patrick Kennedy was here on his own today and he was pretty impressive. And I imagine 20 to 30 Kennedys coming here into my home at one go will be pretty overwhelming."

Back in New Ross, Victor Furness, who sang for JFK 50 years ago, remembers the excitement of the day.

"To see this icon live was unbelievable. The only time we ever saw him was in a photograph on the wall beside the Pope. That's what Irish people had in their houses at the time. To actually see him in reality was out of this world," he says.

After President Kennedy was assassinated, Victor and Mary Cummins and some of their choir were flown to America to sing and remind the grieving American public of his recent Irish visit.

They appeared on the famous Ed Sullivan TV show and despite the sad occasion Mary has happy memories.

"I loved the television programme. The biggest thrill was seeing Danny Kaye. He was outside the TV studios when I saw him and I nearly lost my life because I absolutely adored him," she recalls.

As the excitement builds towards 22 June, the New Ross Community Museum has asked people to bring in their mementos of JFK's visit.

Ray Flynn, one of the organisers, says one of the items included in the collection is an official document from Aras an Uchtarain, the Irish president's office, that "indicates a change of arrangements and advises on the dress code for people".

The Kennedy connection is important to New Ross.

There is a genuine affection for the family and pride in their story of success.

But it is also good for business and, who knows? Maybe President Obama's stay in Northern Ireland could have similar benefits for County Fermanagh.

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