In 1979, at age 30, Kevin O'Hara walked a donkey around the coast of Ireland. The journey lasted eight months and 1,720 Irish miles. During the trek, they spent over 150 nights in different farmhouses handing out JFK half-dollars to admirers.

When I set off on my donkey travels around Ireland in 1979, I brought along a dozen John F. Kennedy half-dollars, having learned from previous visits that Irish children prized this handsome coin commemorating the first Irish-American president. I intended to give a coin to any child who’d assist my rambles in a special way. 

Since my adventures were well publicized, I was often accompanied by children who followed me around like the Pied Piper. In Kinvara, County Galway, some 30 girls from a nearby convent school surrounded me as if I were Paul McCartney about to sing, “Give Ireland Back to the Irish.” When the recess bell sounded, they all scampered back to school but one little redhead who made a beeline to the grocer’s and returned with a carrot in hand.

“Aren’t you afraid you’ll be scolded for being tardy?” I asked her, as she cautiously fed the carrot to my donkey, Missie.  

"No, sir,” she shrugged without concern. “All our Sisters are batty about donkeys.”

"Curly" by Kevin O'Hara.

"Curly" by Kevin O'Hara.

I dug into my camera bag and handed her the first of my 12 JFK coins.

After thanking me with a flurry of handshakes, she dashed back to school, clutching the coin as if it were a golden guinea. 

My second 50-cent piece went to Donal Glynn of Doolin, County Clare. Donal was a 13-year-old boy who not only found Missie a rich field to graze in but happily watched over her for two days. This allowed me to visit Inisheer Island and enjoy a night of traditional music at Gus O’Connor’s Pub.

The morning I broke camp, I handed Donal a JFK coin. “Here’s a souvenir for your donkey-sitting.”  

“John F. Kennedy, the pride of our two countries,” he gasped. “But I can’t take this, surely I can’t?”

“Yes, you can. It’s luck money.”

"Peek-a-boo" by Kevin O'Hara.

"Peek-a-boo" by Kevin O'Hara.

I soon wished I had brought 100 half-dollars with me since I dished out my third, fourth and fifth coins shortly after crossing the River Shannon into County Kerry. One coin went to a generous lad who gave my highway queen a bag of seasoned oats. Another went to an Irish-speaking [cailín] colleen who adorned Missie’s bridle with a spray of wildflowers. My fifth coin went to a boy who shouldered Missie’s cart up a steep incline toward Dingle’s Conor Pass

I can no longer recall all the children I gave a half-dollar to, but I do remember the last two. 

My 11th coin went to a boy named Liam, in the absolute wilds of County Mayo. He had cycled by me earlier in the day but simply waved as he passed. Imagine my surprise when he pedaled back that afternoon with a flask of tea and ham sandwiches.

“Will you be passing this way every year?” he eagerly asked.

“I don’t think so. This journey is once and done, I’m afraid.”

“’Tis a pity, because you’d make a topping tramp with your long black hair and turf-colored donkey. Why, Mr. Donkeyman, you’d soon become as famous as the colorful storytellers who roamed these parts in bygone days.

“Think of your richness,” he continued in earnest. “After 20 years, there wouldn’t be a child you wouldn’t know in the entire country. That way you’d never have to say goodbye to kids like me, but just a cheery hello year after year.”

"Puss in boots" by Kevin O'Hara.

"Puss in boots" by Kevin O'Hara.

My last coin was given to a teenage girl in Connemara, County Galway. It was early December and my goal of reaching my grandmother’s by Christmas was in dire jeopardy due to the strong North Atlantic gales that stitched Missie’s ears to the back of her head. 

With such brutal weather, I shared my concerns with the locals.

“There’s no need for you to fret,” the charming teen piped up, having overheard our conversation. “That’s because you’re in the heart of an old Irish blessing.” 

“I am?” I queried the young sage.

“You’ve been walking your donkey since you set off on your pilgrimage, am I right? By doing so, you two have become great pals, as it’s told in this blessing:

Don’t walk in front of me

I might not follow

Don’t walk behind me

I may not lead

Walk beside me

And just be my friend.

“See, your donkey has become your anam cara, your soul mate, and she won’t let you down despite any obstacle. ‘Tis the nature of her breed, but so few know it.”

I handed her my last coin, thanking her for sharing such a timely road blessing.    

She cupped the silver in her hands. “John Fitzgerald Kennedy! How proud was our country when he was elected.”

That said, she shortly went on her way. In turn, I took Missie by the rein and resumed the last leg of our journey with a brighter step, knowing that our quest was well in hand.

* Kevin O'Hara is the proud winner of the 2012 John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Award and has read his homespun stories on numerous TV and radio stations, in addition to appearing at countless libraries, colleges, and Irish pubs throughout New England. Visit Kevin O’Hara’s website at

This article originally appeared in The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Massachusetts where Kevin has published a St. Patrick's Day article for the last 40 years.

You can buy Kevin O'Har's book "Last of the Donkey Pilgrims: A Man's Journey Through Ireland" here.