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The Curragh is a flat, grassy plain in the Irish midlands, famous for its racecourse, its vast flocks of sheep and its military college. It is where Irish soldiers are trained to this day.
But the sprawling red-brick barracks was an isolated place for young men in the 1960s, where all orders were in Irish and the daily regimen of study, training and endless inspections was broken only by a weekly one-day leave.
Most cadets were on such a leave the night in 1963 that the late Col. Cyril Mattimoe, then commander of the barracks, received a startling phone call. It was 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 23, the day after Kennedy’s assassination. On the line was Lt. Gen. Sean MacEoin, Ireland’s military chief of staff.
"You are providing a guard of honor at the funeral of President Kennedy," he told Mattimoe. "You have a busy night ahead."
In personal reflections written years later, Mattimoe described the chaotic hours that followed as messengers were dispatched to local cinemas and restaurants and frantic phone-calls were placed to dance halls 60 miles away in Dublin.
Cadet Jim Sreenan remembers the lights snapping on during the movie "Genghis Khan" and someone bellowing, "All cadets report back to base." Martin Coughlan recalls "all hell breaking out" as he was summoned back to the barracks from a dinner with friends.
After being briefed on their mission, the cadets had little time to contemplate its enormity. They spent the night in a whirlwind of preparations — degreasing their ceremonial Lee Enfield rifles, which had been packed away in storage, ironing their uniforms and practicing the drill until 2 a.m.
The next day, they boarded an Aer Lingus Boeing 707 with de Valera and other dignitaries, their rifles tucked under their seats. Each carried a few pound notes offered by a thoughtful local shopkeeper, who emptied his till on their behalf.
In Washington, the cadets were greeted by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and bused to the Fort Myer military base where, jet-lagged and overawed, they once again practiced.
"We were nervous and exhausted, and the drill was terrible," recalled Peter McMahon.
But the curious American G.I.s leaning out of the windows around the drill square thought otherwise.
"We of the Old Guard marveled at their deportment and precision drilling," Martin Dockery, one U.S. soldier, wrote in a piece for an Irish magazine in 2007.
Nor were there any ill feelings toward the special position offered the Irish.
"No one was offended," said Dockery, now retired and living in Rye, N.Y. "The drill was so unusual and so moving, we completely understood why Mrs. Kennedy had remembered them."
"All was uncannily still," Mattimoe wrote of the cadets’ long, silent wait by the open grave. "Nature itself seemed sunk in grief."
Eventually, the cortege arrived and the Kennedy family walked to the grave. Heads of state moved in behind the cadets. Cardinal Richard Cushing began the prayers. A deafening flyover followed: Air Force and Navy jet fighters, and Air Force One.
And then, Colclough gave the order in Irish — "Ar Airm Aisiompaithe Lui" ("On Reversed Arms Rest") — and the cadets commenced their drill. Years later, they remember it as a near spiritual experience.
"It was all very haunting, but enveloping at the same time," said Michael McGrath. "It was like the drill just became part of you, and we all became one."
And though it passed in a blur, they knew they had executed it flawlessly.Next Page >
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