Our Jack – Pete Hamill on JFK

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From Irish America:

Somewhere in the shadowy land between myth and history lies the domicile of John F. Kennedy. The first United States president of Irish-Catholic descent, Kennedy was a man of many faces: war hero, orator, lover, creator, and visionary. He had it all, and it was all taken away, but in the end he gained immortality.


That day I was in Ireland, in the dark, hard northern city of Belfast. I was there with my father, who had been away from the city where he was born for more than 30 years. He was an American now: citizen of Brooklyn, survivor of the Depression and poverty, one leg lost on an American playing field in the late 1920s, playing a game learned in Ireland, father of seven children, fanatic of baseball. But along the Falls Road in Belfast in November 1963, he was greeted as a returning Irishman by his brother Frank and his surviving Irish friends, and there were many Irish tears and much Irish laughter, waterfalls of beer, and all the old Irish songs of defiance and loss. Billy Hamill was home. And on the evening of November 22, I was in my cousin Frankie Bennett’s house in a section called Andersonstown, dressing to go down to see the old man in a place called the Rock Bar. The television was on in the parlor. Frankie’s youngest kids were playing on the floor. A frail rain was falling outside.

And then the program was interrupted and a BBC announcer came on, his face grave, to say that the president of the United States had been shot while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Everything in the room stopped. In his clipped, abrupt voice, the announcer said that the details were sketchy. Everyone turned to me, the visiting American, a reporter on a New York newspaper, as if I would know if this could possibly be true. I mumbled, talked nonsense – maybe it was a mistake; sometimes breaking news is moved too fast – but my stomach was churning. The regular program resumed; the kids went back to playing. A few minutes later, the announcer returned, and this time his voice was unsteady. It was true. John F. Kennedy, the president of the United States, was dead.

I remember whirling in pain and fury, slamming the wall with my open hand, and reeling out into the night. All over the city, thousands of human beings were doing the same thing. Doors slammed and sudden wails went up. Oh, sweet Jesus, they shot Jack! and They killed President Kennedy! and He’s been shot dead! At the foot of the Falls Road, I saw an enraged man punching a tree. Another man sat on the curb, sobbing into his hands. Trying to be a reporter, I wandered over to the Shankill Road, the main Protestant avenue in that city long ghettoized by religion and history. There was not yet a Peace Line; not yet any British troops hovering warily on the streets, no bombs or ambushes or bloody Sundays. The reaction was the same on the Shankill as it was on the Falls. Holy God, they’ve killed President Kennedy: with men weeping and children running aimlessly with the news and bawling women everywhere. It was a scale of grief I’d never seen before or since in any place on earth. That night, John Fitzgerald Kennedy wasn’t “the Catholic president” to the people of the Shankill or the Falls; he was the young and shining prince of the Irish diaspora.

Link to the rest at Irish America