Paul Mangan was a newly promoted detective in the Irish Garda Siochana (police force) in June of 1963, and the 27-year-old remembers like it was yesterday the biggest assignment of his career – working on the security detail surrounding the historic four-day visit to Ireland by President John F. Kennedy that began on June 27.
Now 77, Mangan, a native of Killimer, Co. Clare who now lives outside Cork City, told the Irish Voice during a phone interview this week that Kennedy’s visit electrified his country, which was just starting to emerge from the doldrums of high unemployment and large-scale emigration of the 1950s.
And, Mangan added, the 35th president of the United States was a nice, down to earth guy to boot.
“I actually got to meet him when he was departing Ireland at Shannon Airport,” Mangan said. “All of us who were working on his security were lined up so that we could shake the president’s hand and say hello.
“He couldn’t have been more polite or decent. He thanked us for doing a great job and said what a wonderful time he had.”
The president, whose Kennedy roots stemmed from Co. Wexford, traveled with two limousines from America. Mangan was situated in the second one, and had a bird’s eye view of the Kennedy fever that gripped Ireland.
“There was just tremendous excitement here, absolutely huge. We talked about nothing else,” recalled Mangan, whose eldest son, Kevin, moved to New York 25 years ago and is the financial controller for the Irish Voice.
“Everybody came out to catch a glimpse of him. And you could tell how much enjoyment he was getting from the reaction.”
Mangan contrasted the Kennedy visit to an earlier 1963 trip to Ireland by Dwight D. Eisenhower, then out of office, who Mangan also met.
“I have to say there was no comparison. Eisenhower was very serious. There wasn’t a lot of warmth there. Whereas with JFK, he just loved being in Ireland,” Mangan said.
The security planning in Ireland prior to JFK’s arrival was intense, Mangan recalled, but given that Kennedy was coming to his beloved ancestral home, fears of an attack weren’t paramount.
“We had many meetings beforehand to plan the visit and how it would go. We were all told exactly what we were supposed to do,” Mangan said.
“It wouldn’t be anything like the level of security today, of course, but we had all our eyes on the crowds that came to meet JFK, trying to anticipate any trouble. But there wasn’t any at all. Irish people were in love with him.”
Mangan joined the Kennedy entourage in Co. Wexford for the president’s stops at his ancestral home in New Ross and Dunganstown. He was with JFK until he departed Shannon for a trip to England.
“He loved meeting everyone, especially his cousins in Wexford,” Mangan said.
The Kennedy spirit made an indelible impression on the young detective, and indeed, on Ireland itself.
“He just had this sense of optimism. He made us feel good about ourselves again,” Mangan recalled.
“He gave us great anticipation and hope about our futures. We turned a corner in Ireland after that visit, and so much of it was down to JFK.”
During his lengthy police career – Mangan was promoted to detective sergeant and headed the narcotics squad in Cork City prior to his retirement 20 years ago – Mangan also worked on the Irish visits of Presidents Richard Nixon (1970) and Ronald Reagan (1984). None can hold a candle to JFK.
“Nixon was not anywhere near as genuine,” he said. “He spoke without emotion. Reagan was nicer. I actually rode in his helicopter with him to Ballyporeen in Tipperary. But he didn’t thank us at the end of his trip. Security was tighter then.”
When Mangan first heard that JFK was assassinated less than six months after his triumphant visit to Ireland, he was shocked – just as the rest of the world was.
“I couldn’t believe it. Here was this young, vibrant man who meant so much to us, and now he was gone. I felt especially bad because he had been so nice to those of us who met him in Ireland,” Mangan said.
“It was difficult for us to get news about what happened. Now it is different with 24-hour news constantly, but back then TV was a new thing, so we didn’t have all the constant updates. It was very sad.
“But there’s one thing for sure,” Mangan added. “We will never, ever forget him, and we’ll never see his likes here again.”