The visit of President John F. Kennedy to Ireland in June 1963 is something that is remembered with great affection and nostalgia by Irish people.
The fact that just six months later the President was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, made his visit ‘home’ to the land of his forefathers all the more poignant.
The trip was an unqualified success, from an American and an Irish point of view. The visits to the Kennedys ancestral town of New Ross, Co. Wexford, on June 27, and to the farm that his great grandfather, Patrick Kennedy, had left in 1848 at the height of the Great Irish Famine, were the highlights for the President himself.
Skibbereen-born Andy Minihan was chairman of New Ross Urban District Council in 1963, and, being quite a character, he endeared himself to the President and his family. However, while Andy and President Kennedy seemed to hit it off, some of the president’s staff were not at all enamoured with him.
Pierre Salinger was Kennedy’s press secretary for the duration of the presidency. Salinger visited New Ross prior to the Kennedy visit as part of an advance trip and had a bit of a spat with Andy, who was a most engaging man, very affable and with great charisma. But he had a mischievous sense of humour and had scant regard for authority.
The advance party, accompanied by Andy Minihan, visited the Kennedy ancestral homestead at Dunganstown just outside New Ross. In the farmyard where the President was due to meet some of his cousins, there was a sizeable pile of dung. “That will have to go,” said Salinger. But Andy refused to have the heap removed saying that it was an authentic farm yard and that “the President will have to see us as we are.” It nearly caused a minor diplomatic incident. The poor American diplomats couldn’t see that Andy Minihan was really just stirring the dung!
Salinger referred to the incident in his memoir With Kennedy which was published by Jonathan Cape in 1967. Considering that Salinger was press secretary during one of the most interesting periods in American history, which included the Cuban crisis, and he was closely involved in the diplomatic exchanges between Kennedy and Khrushchev, it’s seems a little strange that Andy Minihan and the heap of dung in a farmyard in Dunganstown made such a lasting impression on him.
A bit more serious was another incident to do with the amplification for the official reception at the quayside in New Ross on June 27, 1963. Andy defied the Ministry for External Affairs and the US embassy in Dublin by selecting a local electrician rather than a large firm from Dublin to look after the PA system – and when he tested the microphone, it was dead. “We’re in right trouble now” were the immortal words of Andy Minihan seconds before US President John F. Kennedy took to the stage on the quayside in New Ross. Unfortunately, Andy’s comment was picked up by the RTÉ microphone and broadcast.
That phrase “We’re in right trouble now,” stuck to Andy and it followed him around for the rest of his life. Even if he stepped into a pub for a pint, there’d be a chorus of “We’re in right trouble now,” from the other customers in the bar.
By some fete of alchemy, or divine intervention, the sound system was restored to working order by the time Andy extended his hand to officially welcome President John F. Kennedy to New Ross.
The pair hit it off immediately with Andy’s gift of a piece of rock from the Giant’s Causeway and the line “the mountain has been brought to Mohamet” going down especially well with the very relaxed president.
Just six months later, on November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Andy Minihan attended the funeral as part of the official Irish delegation. At the funeral he met the President’s family and he was also introduced to Lyndon Johnson.
Andy became quite the celebrity, at home and in the USA. In subsequent years he was guest of honour at St Patrick’s Day parades in New York and New Jersey on a few different occasions. He also attended the funeral of Bobby Kennedy in 1968. He appeared on The Late Late Show on RTÉ television and became quite friendly with presenter Gay Byrne. Andy always said that President John F. Kennedy was the second iconic figure he met; when he was a boy he sat on Michael Collins’s knee.
Andy Minihan was born in Skibbereen on March 14, 1911. His father was also Andy and his mother was Elizabeth Hegarty. Andy lived his early years at No. 24 North Street before moving to Glasgow. He returned to Ireland in 1936 when a business opportunity brought him to New Ross.
Andy’s father ran a licenced premises at No. 24 North Street and also owned the Wine Vaults in Bridge Street. But Andy senior is remembered especially in Skibbereen for having built the Central Hotel, that very imposing three-storey building that joins Townshend Street and Mardyke Street. It was built probably in the early 1890s. The area comprised some derelict and very dilapidated houses; Andy cleared a big site and built the hotel and the houses adjoining it on Mardyke Street, transforming that part of town. Andy senior was also a member of Skibbereen Urban District Council.
The Moynihan family ran the Central Hotel for many years; it was later leased by Jerry Hegarty who ran it for some time before it finally closed. The property was purchased in the early 1940s by Cain O’Mahony, grandfather of the current Cain O’Mahony. Cain O’Mahony and Andy Minhan were cousins.
The O’Mahony family ran a licenced business and hardware shop in Townshend Street (now the Horse & Hound) going right back to the mid-19th century and in April 1951 moved the hardware business to No. 1 Townshend Street where it was run by Paddy O’Mahony and later by his son Cain. The building now houses the offices of FBD Insurance.
Andy Minihan was a regular visitor to his home town of Skibbereen, staying with his cousins the O’Mahony family. In February 1965, at the Town Hall, he gave a talk and presented recordings of speeches and films made on the occasion of President Kennedy’s visit to Ireland.
Andy Minihan died suddenly on August 26, 1989, while on holiday in Scotland. There are still many connections to the Minihan family in Skibbereen, including of course Andy’s cousin and godson Cain O’Mahony.