JFK’s Bunratty Girls

Bunratty Castle was built in 1425 by the Earl of Thomond. The Earl had a tradition of hospitality, and since 1963 that tradition has been carried on through the many Bunratty Medieval Banquets held every year in the castle. The Banquets have welcomed guests from across the world to dine in medieval style and enjoy the classical Irish music as performed by the Bunratty singers – who have been described as “Ireland’s foremost cultural ambassadors” and the “Riverdance of their day.” But one significant fan of the Bunratty singers was none other than John F. Kennedy himself, President of the United States.

My grandmother, Una Wallace, was a classically trained singer and part of the original group of Bunratty Singers of 1963 whose travels included three tours of the East and West coasts of USA. In the Summer of 1963, they found themselves in the extraordinary position of being on-board an Airforce One helicopter from Shannon to Dublin to sing for US President John F. Kennedy at the American Embassy. Kennedy was the most powerful man in the world and an icon admired by many, and the opportunity of singing for him was an unbelievable experience for eight humble women from all over Ireland.

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The Bunratty Castle singers meeting David Power (left) and Ambassador McCloskey (right)

My grandmother remembers the day to be “absolutely amazing”. Kennedy was so impressed with the performance that he requested for the Bunratty singers to come to the White House to sing. Nanny describes meeting David Power, special aide to Kennedy: “he was a lovely man and he arranged for us to visit Washington to sing at the White House for President Kennedy.” Kennedy asked if the girls would also perform at Shannon Airport before his departure home, which of course they did. “We sang for him again at Shannon and as he was leaving, he turned around and looked at us and said, “there’s my girls” – he was just lovely, really lovely”, my grandmother reminisced.

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President Kennedy, Eunice Kennedy Shriver and my grandmother, Una (in the green) at Shannon Airport

Unfortunately, before the Bunratty Singers got to visit Washington President Kennedy had been assassinated. They were taken to the White House and met the new President Johnson, but “it was so sad that he [Kennedy] wasn’t there” nanny said, “still, going into the oval office was something special.” My grandmother sat in the President’s chair at his desk in the oval office as she posed for a photograph with the rest of the singers. “The first thing Dave Power said was to take a look at the book on the desk – it was a photograph album of Kennedy’s and we were in it, a picture taken when he visited Ireland. We couldn’t believe it!” she told me, “It was such an honour to have met him, I have always cherished the memories.”

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My grandmother pictured in the President’s chair in the Oval Office, with the Bunratty girls and David Power

In June 1967 Jackie Kennedy, the late President’s wife, and her two children Caroline and John came to Ireland. During their holiday they visited Bunratty Castle and the Bunratty singers where a special banquet was held. “The children curtseyed when they came in, they must have thought this is what you should do!” my grandmother joked. The Bunratty girls performed for Jackie, and when they were finished she requested that they sing ‘Danny Boy’, which was one of the songs they had sang for President Kennedy. Nanny explained, “We wouldn’t have usually sang ‘Danny Boy’ in the castle as it would have been too ‘pop’, but we sang it anyway and I remember singing my heart out thinking that Jackie was thinking about her late husband. But when we had finished and she was walking out past us she spoke to us in her soft whispered voice and said, “that was lovely – Caroline has a pony called Danny Boy!” and I realised I was singing for a flippin’ horse!”

 

Emma McVeigh is a final year BSc in Communication, Advertising and Marketing student at Ulster University. You can contact her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/emma-mcveigh-611462a4/ or on Twitter @emmamcveigh_

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