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Just a few months before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, he visited Ireland. It was a journey home really, because although Kennedy was born in Brookline, Mass., his roots dug deep there. During the potato famine of the late 1840s in Ireland, Kennedy’s eight great-grandparents all migrated to Boston. Some of them left by boat from the port of New Ross in County Wexford.
Kennedy went to New Ross on June 27, 1963, and said: “When my great grandfather left here to become a cooper in East Boston, he carried nothing with him except two things: a strong religious faith and a strong desire for liberty. I am glad to say that all of his great-grandchildren have valued that inheritance.”
The Irish visit was political. It came right after President Kennedy’s famous Cold War speech in Berlin (see video and transcript). But it was also extraordinarily personal. Frank Rigg is curator emeritus at the Kennedy Library in Boston:
When President Kennedy visited Dublin, he saw something that greatly impressed him and became for him one of the highlights of the journey. After a wreath-laying ceremony at the Arbor Hill Cemetery near the graves of the leaders of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, a group of Irish Army cadets performed a special, silent drill in remembrance of the dead. After the drill was completed, President Kennedy told the commanding officer it was the finest honor guard he had ever seen. When he returned to the White House, he requested a film of that drill.
In the hours after President Kennedy was assassinated, his widow Jacqueline made a special request of the U.S. State Department. She wanted those Irish cadets to perform that same drill at his funeral. But that class of young men had graduated, so the duty fell to cadets from the next class, the ones who had made the film of the drill for the president.
On November 25, 1963, 50 years ago today, the young Irish cadets stood at attention for hours near the freshly dug grave. They could hear the muffled beat of the drums as the procession made its way from Washington across the Potomac River to Arlington National Cemetery.
The drill is known as the Queen Anne or the Funeral Drill. One of its signatures moves involves each cadet turning his rifle on its head, pointed toward his toe, a reversal of arms that serves as a sign of respect for the dead. On this day 50 years ago, those Irish cadets performed it to perfection, while members of the American military stood at attention themselves, holding the stars and stripes over Kennedy’s coffin.
It’s the only time foreign troops have ever rendered honors at the funeral of an American president.