Youth, Charisma and Politics: Some Thoughts Prompted by the NLI / RTÉ / JFK Talk

RTE - JFK Talk at NLI
Ryan Tubridy in conversation with RTÉ Archivist Liam Wylie
(Image author’s own)

A shiny creature with dazzling teeth, golden skin and a mop of hair.  Ryan Tubridy’s description of John F. Kennedy succinctly captured the appearance of the man whose image welcomed the audience to the National Library of Ireland yesterday evening.  Tubridy was opening a talk on RTÉ’s role in covering JFK’s historic visit to Ireland fifty years ago.  It was a wonderfully entertaining event, filled with ‘insider stories’ about overcoming the challenges faced by the then fledgling RTÉ in capturing those four days in 1963.  Comparisons were also offered with the coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s and Barrack Obama’s visit in 2011.  Throughout the various stories offered, Kennedy’s looming image was ever-present.  That shiny creature with dazzling teeth, golden skin and a mop of hair.  I was reminded of a conversation I had when choosing images for my forthcoming book.

A Just Society for Ireland? 1964-1987  opens with an examination of the state of Fine Gael at the time when Declan Costello was attempting to inject new life into the party by giving it a sense of purpose through his Just Society proposals.

Screen Shot 2013-07-10 at 12.57.18
Extract from circular to Fine Gael parliamentary party, April 1964
(In possession of author)

After a vigorous internal debate, which I’ve previously written about here, the party agreed to send Costello’s proposals to a policy committee.  However, before a finalised document could be readied, Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Seán Lemass called an early general election.  As the opponents of the Just Society had not produced any alternative policies of their own, Towards a Just Society became the Fine Gael manifesto for the 1965 election by default.  

Coincidentally, before I attended yesterday evening’s talk, I spent the afternoon in the library’s reading room leafing through old copies of the RTV Guide (forerunner of the RTÉ Guide) for an article I’m writing on The Riordans.   As tends to be the case when working with hardcopies, rather than digital format, I soon found myself engrossed in articles not of direct relevance (Remember Flipper?  It first aired on RTÉ in 1965).  One article that caught my eye opened with the observation,

It has been said that one of the late President Kennedy’s greatest achievements was the change he brought about in the image of the American politician. 

The reference to Kennedy, and to his youth in particular, was by way of introduction to three of Dáil Éireann’s younger politicians – Fianna Fáil’s George Colley, Fine Gael’s Declan Costello and Labour’s Jim Tully – who were to be the subject of the latest Radharc documentary.  Among the questions that would be considered by the programme: ‘Are there openings for the young, educated and dedicated would-be politician?’ (RTV Guide, 8 October 1965).

By the time I was heading home last night, I felt I’d had one of those days where I could see so many different connections to and within my research.  The conversation I was reminded of when choosing images for the book?  It was prompted by a poster featuring the then Fine Gael leader James Dillon for the 1965 general election.  After that election, which saw Fine Gael remain on the opposition benches, Dillon announced his retirement from politics and cited his age as a factor in his decision – he was then 62.  That poster, which unfortunately didn’t make it into the book, I thought, was a symbol of disconnect: the face of an older politician representing a party seemingly promoting an energetic new departure devised by 37-year old Declan Costello.  Furthermore, the 1960s was a decade of change in Ireland, which saw the passing of the revolutionary generation and a greater emphasis on youth.  American culture was being imported via programming bought by RTÉ and Kennedy’s youthful looks and spirit had captured Irish audiences.  It was hardly surprising that Fine Gael, as represented by Dillon on those posters, was seen as out of touch with society.  It seemed – rightly or wrongly – as the Radharc documentary suggested, that the future lay with the young, educated and dedicated would-be politician.

****

While JFK, with his Hollywood-looks, watched over the audience at the NLI, we were also treated to ‘behind the scenes’ stories in which Godfrey Graham recalled shooting footage of one of the roadways on which Kennedy would travel two weeks before the actual event, because the equipment was not yet available in 1963 to record it as it was happening.  John O’Regan (creator of the brilliant Reeling in the Years) entertained us with a story of how the RTÉ team covering Queen Elizabeth’s visit devised an ingenious plan to capture the poignant moment that she would lay a wreath.  The solution?  A tiny, pencil-sized camera would be concealed in the monument immediately in front of her, providing a direct shot.  It had to be carefully done: to the uninformed, the device, with its wires at the back, could look suspicious! But with some careful adjustments it blended in with the monument and capture what was only seconds-worth but valuable footage.

 

(Image author's own)
(Image author’s own)

‘President Kennedy in Ireland: RTÉ’s Role in this Historic Visit’ is one of the many events on offer at the National Library of Ireland coinciding with its summer exhibition, JFK: Homecoming.  Many thanks to Ryan Tubridy, John O’Regan, Liam Wylie, Godfrey Graham and the staff of the NLI for a most enjoyable evening.  Further information on the JFK exhibition is available here.

Published by Dr Ciara Meehan

I am Head of History and Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire. I am the author of 'The Cosgrave Party: a History of Cumann na nGaedheal, 1923-1933' (Royal Irish Academy, 2010) and 'A Just Society for Ireland? 1964-1987' (Palgrave, 2013). I also co-edited 'A Formative Decade: Ireland in the 1920s' (Irish Academic Press, 2015) and 'Perceptions of Pregnancy from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century' (Palgrave, 2017).

4 thoughts on “Youth, Charisma and Politics: Some Thoughts Prompted by the NLI / RTÉ / JFK Talk

  1. An enjoyable read Ciara – interesting to note the emphasis on youth and virility even in Fine Gael back in the 60s. Many commentators observe it as a recent political vogue, starting with Blair and culminating in Cameron, Clegg and Miliband.
    I read Robert Dallek’s biog on Kennedy when it came out and his leagacy now seems to be a 50/50 shake.
    You can find a worthy precis here: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/12/the-medical-ordeals-of-jfk/305572/

    1. Thanks for the link, Niall. Will check it out. Notable also that FG ran its presidential campaign in ’66 on the theme of a youthful president, capturing the spirit of the sixties — a possible explanation as to why the party came so close to defeating Dev (my article on this is available under the ‘Other Publications’ tab, if you’re interested).

  2. Ciara

    Just listening to you on Morning Ireland comparing current debate to earlier ones of ’00s, 90s and 80s. My experience as an activist – against the proposed amendment in the early 80s – is of enormous bitterness, viciousness, fear – of attack, of repercussions for speaking out in terms of your workplace and family – and most of all then as now the almost total silencing of the voices of women who have had terminations – with the notable exception of Mary Holland….

    These last few months since the death of Savita Hallapanavar has been restrained and more or less respectful in comparison…

    Triona Nic Giolla Choille Galway

    On Wed, Jul 10, 2013 at 3:04 PM, Ciara Meehan: Historian, Author,

    1. Hi Triona,

      Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. Absolutely agree with you: while the language (more so on the pro-life side) is very similar to that used in the 1980s, the way that the debate has played out — as you say — is far different. The subject hasn’t exercised Irish society in the same divisive way as it has done in the past.

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