By Cathy Harasta
The Texas Catholic
Bishop Kevin J. Farrell reflects on President John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic U.S. president, and what his assassination meant to Ireland, the bishop’s homeland, and to the world.
The Texas Catholic: Where were you and what were you doing when the news reached you that President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963?
Bishop Farrell: It was almost 7 o’clock on a very cold, rainy Friday evening in Dublin. I was a junior in high school. My father would come home from work and we’d have tea—like dinner in the United States—at 6 o’clock. We would have the television on. The Angelus Bell would ring.
We would turn off the television and sit down at the table and have tea together. Then I remember that my father turned on the television at 6:30. I remember it so well. Instead of the usual newscaster or news set-up, there just was this person standing there with this very strange, sad-looking expression and talking about somebody who had been shot.
We had just turned it on, and didn’t know who had just been shot.
Then I recall them saying that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas.
I must say that I think the whole world stopped.
We lived under the threat of world war in Europe at that time, especially since the 1956 uprising in Hungary, so we always said, “Well, the world is going to go back to war again. What’s going to happen to us? This is a tragedy.”
I recall my father and my mother saying in Gaelic the Hail Mary and myself and three of my brothers trying to listen to the television.
It was a very emotional moment.
The Texas Catholic: Describe the reaction of the Irish as they tried to absorb the JFK assassination and how they viewed his legacy.
Bishop Farrell: We had activities the next day in the parish. My brother and I had to go down to the parish at 10 o’clock. Already, they had black drapes over the front entrance to the church. Usually, that was reserved for Good Friday. That gave you a sense of the sadness.
There were immediately a national holiday and days of mourning. The next day was Sunday, and I remember going to serve Mass, and the priest talking about the tragic death of this young Irish Catholic president.
In June, President Kennedy had gone to Ireland, and the whole country turned out. We shut the country down for three days.
I went with my father to see the president arrive, which, today, doesn’t seem like a big journey. But to go to the airport in Dublin, you had to get about four public buses. It took about an hour to get to the airport. There were another half-million people there waiting to see this young president arrive.
Only when I went to see the Beatles arrive was there anything compared to that.
We loved this man. We didn’t know too much about politics, nor were we interested. It was the person. It was the idealism. It was the willingness to change. That’s what I remember most.
I remember following him when he was in Dublin. We went everywhere we possibly could just to get a glimpse of this person.
To us, he was the ideal. He was what we saw in the movies.
I always remember that’s what I wanted to be—president of the United States, like everybody.
The Texas Catholic: As a Dallas resident since 2007, and a participant in a memorial observance on Nov. 22 in Dealey Plaza, what do you think the tribute can do for a city now 50 years removed from the assassination?
Bishop Farrell: I think that we have to try and get over Dallas as the “city of hate.” And I think we have come a long way.
Just like today in our nation, also we are politically and ideologically divided to extremes. I think that probably in Dallas at that time, it was just like it is today. I think that Dallas was unfairly labeled as the ‘city of hate.’
I think this unfortunate individual took up a gun to end the life of a great dream and, God only knows what would have been our future had President Kennedy continued to live.
But I don’t think that we can dwell on that. We’ve got to rise above the tragedy of the moment. I think Dallas has done that in an exemplary way.
Tragic things happen in tragic places and situations every day of the week. Let us not live only in the past. But let us remember on this occasion the great idealism, how he brought, in many ways, the young of this nation back. I think of the Peace Corps. And I think of that great enthusiasm that I had as a young person to go out there and change the whole world. And we were going to do it. We had no idea what that world meant, was involved in, but we had a spirit that this man inspired in us all.
That’s what I would hope that this anniversary is all about. It is all about giving life to a society that many times is so involved in itself that it fails to see the big picture.
To me, that’s what this celebration is about—the great spirit of a great man. No matter what your politics may be, you have to admit that he did inspire this nation.”