In 1963, I achieved the heady age of 8 years in my hometown of Enniscorthy. As a pupil of the local CBS Primary school, my days were a mix of classroom studies, after school games and horseplay, ekker (homework) and family life. My parents already had 7 children with another on the way, of whom I was the oldest and in some ways, the boldest. I was very contrary, liked having my own way at everyone elses expense and had a history of destructive behaviour as a youngster. The most outstanding black marks against me were when I demolished a whole roost of hens with a stick as a small boy and when I slammed a metal gate on my brother Pete, breaking two of his fingers.
Television had arrived in our house during 1962 and RTE quickly established a foot hold in our lives – Rin Tin Tin, The Virginian, The Fugitive, Daithi Lacha and Amuith Faoin Speir being some of those early programmes that come back to me from that era. Occasionally due to atmospherics, we would get very excited when a BBC progamme would find its way onto our Bush TV screen but only for a teasingly short stay.
Also, in 1962, we had sat transfixed as a family in front of our new TV as the world was about to end – A Russian fleet loaded with nuclear armaments was bound for Cuba, a direct challenge to the power of our friends, the United States of America. We were a religious family and each evening during this tense situation, once the news was over, my father would lead us in a recitation of the Holy Rosary. As the oldest and the only one so far with the sacrament of Holy Communion, I was allowed the signal honour of leading a decade of Hail Marys. To us, it seemed like our prayers were answered when that great Catholic of Irish descent, whose ancestors had left from New Ross, USA President John Fitzgerald Kennedy saved the day and forced the Russians to turn for home with their tails between their legs. Such was the effect of his world saving efforts, my father placed a photo of him on our kitchen wall to one side of the Sacred Heart lamp, with Pope John XXIII on the other side – all great icons of our Roman Catholic world.
Early in 1963, a large American car pulled up in our drive way and it seemed like 5 of the fattest people I had ever seen poured out to be greeted by my father. It turned out they were cousins of ours on a visit from California to meet their Irish relations. Two of them, father and son, were also called Charley Kavanagh. In recent years, I have discovered that these cousins were descendants through a common ancestor. My greatgrandfather, John Kavanagh, had maried twice, the second resulted after his first wife had died in childbirth. My father was a grandchild of the second union, while these newfound extra large American cousins were descendants from the first union. They stayed for a few hours and I’ve never seen or heard from them since.
Summertime in my memory was always sunny, resulting in occasional visits to the sea en famille. Local favourite beaches were Curracloe, Blackwater and Morriscastle, all less than 15 miles from our home. A memory from those trips was the visit to a red Morris van selling ice cream from the back. With no refridgeration, the lollipops were usually a bit runny which we had to consume quickly and our faces and bodies covered in the sugary runoff. Other summer pursuits were playing cowboys and indians in the woods around our house with my school friends and annoying younger brothers, as well as cylcling adventures around the locality.
At the ripe old age of 8 1/2 years that summer, I was allowed to go picking strawberries and earned some pocket money from my endeavours. An ad running on RTE for Clerys Department store featured a wrist watch for 11s 6d and I set my sights on it. My strawberry money came to about 8s and my father stumped up the rest to enable me achieve my target. I was proud as punch parading my new possession on my wrist for the next few years.
My father Simon was a fan of hurling and I was brought along to the occasional big match involving our Wexford heroes in Purple and Gold. Greyhounds were the great sporting love of his life and in 1963, one of his bitches, Cross Mistress, won several trophies at the local Enniscorthy track and set a Track Record which was never beaten in the lifetime of that particular track surface. He had many great successes as an owner but this one was special as he had put her in the ownership of my younger brother Dermot, who was 4 years old. His greyhound gene passed to my brother Johnny, who was born in early November 1963 and today operates as a trainer from our homeplace.
However, 1963 will always stand out in my memory for the Irish visit of President Kennedy, especially to Wexford, and his shocking demise at the hands of an assassin. My father brought my mother, myself, my brother Pete and our cousin Paddy to Wexford Park to witness the arrival of JFK to his ancestral county. In an overflowing GAA pitch, 4 massive green helicopters circled overhead, creating a terrible din, before landing on the middle of the pitch. The President and his large entourage were transferred into a waiting cortege of official US cars. The excitement of the occasion was fabulous and even though our vantage point was well removed from the actual main focal point, it felt as good as actually meeting the great man. Our TV showed lots of footage of the monumental visit to various centres around Ireland but having seen the man himself in the distance, Wexford Park was it for me.
As a family, our new TV provided a focal point in the evening time. We would sit huddled near the open fire watching our favourite programmes before bedtime beckoned. One particular Friday evening in late November 1963, at the age of 8 3/4 years, has stuck in my memory. The face of Charles Mitchell, our regular newsreader, broke onto our screens, well before the normal news slot, under the banner of a news flash. The words he uttered sent us into shock and it seemed like our world as we knew it had ended – President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas and was feared dead. The great Catholic US President of Irish descent who had captured the heart of every Irish man and woman was no more. I’m sure I didn’t sleep too well that night and probably Nikita Krushchev, our great ogre in the Kremlin, wasn’t flavour of the month, mostly because of the Cuban missile crisis of a year earlier.
1963 has lots of memories for me but the visit of JFK and his assassination dominate. People of my generation around the world still define the moment they heard of Kennedy’s demise by what they were doing at that time, 50 years later. It is a small coincidence that 50 years later, the 22nd of November 2013 also falls on a Friday.