JFK 50 years later: Irish cadets remember their final salute
By then the soldiers who had performed the drill had graduated, and so it fell upon the next class to make the film. For weeks, the cadets trained daily, practicing the 10-minute, intricately choreographed moves. Though it was an honor, some considered it a thankless task — all this practicing merely for a film.
It was also, in the eyes of at least one drill sergeant, an ominous one. The drill should only be performed for a memorial service or a burial, Sgt. "An Rua" (The Red) O’Sullivan warned the cadets.
It was bad luck, he said, to perform it for any other reason.
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."