"I was JFK's bodyguard!"

Written by Debbie Orme

Mick McEIlkenny has, among other things, just missed out on an All-Ireland medal, tripped over poet Paddy Kavanagh's feet on umpteen occasions, and still managed to find time to act as bodyguard to US President, John F Kennedy during his memorable visit in 1963. Debbie Orme traces the life and times - so far - of the big man from Coalisland, Co Tyrone.

'I've had a great life', says Mick. 'It has certainly been varied and there's still never a dull minute.'

After joining the Garda Siochana in 1954, Mick initially served some time in the Gadceadcait (the Irish-speaking battalion) in Galway, but then moved on to serve at Collins' Barracks in Dublin (now a museum). It was while serving in Dublin that Mick received the invitation of a lifetime to work with the then US President, John F Kennedy.

'President Kennedy came to Ireland on a four-day trip in June 1963', said Mick. 'It was part of the European tour in which he was later to go to the Berlin Wall and make his famous 'Ich bin ein Berliner' speech. The Irish part of his tour was a particularly emotional visit for him because County Wexford was his ancestral home.

'I was drafted into Dublin as bodyguard for the duration of his stay in the capital and it was a great honour to serve him. He had obviously brought his own bodyguards as well, but the Garda had been asked to provide extra men and that was how I found myself working for the great man himself!

'Although we were providing security none of us really felt that there was any danger for the President. He was so welcome in Ireland that he felt as though he was among friends - and indeed he was! The fact is, though, that when you are in a position of power such as he was, you just never know what type of danger is lurking around, so we were certainly necessary. If often felt, however, that we were needed more to keep his fans at bay rather than any potential assailants! In light of what later happened to him, though, I realise how important his security was.

'President Kennedy was a very pleasant man, very jovial. Although he was working, he found time to speak to us all and made time for everyone. He was very interested in the Irish way of life, particularly since he felt in part Irish himself.

'He constantly referred to his Irish ancestry. Indeed, when he visited his ancestral homestead with two of his sisters, who had accompanied him, he said 'I want to drink a cup of tea to all those Kennedys, who went to America during the famine and to all those Kennedys, who stayed. He felt very much Irish'.

One of Mick's duties during the President's visit was at the Irish President's Garden Party in Dublin - an occasion when he didn't think there would be much call for security. Things, however, were to go slightly awry!

'Looking back now it was quite amusing', said Mick, 'but at the time it wasn't funny. Everyone at the garden party was seated around tables. The President was inside and we security men waited outside. The visitors to the party were supposed to be seated - and remain in their seats - but there was too much excitement and everybody got up and swarmed towards the President. There was absolute chaos, so we had to go in twice and move them back!

'During one of my conversations with the President he invited me to come and visit the White House at Christmas of that year. He certainly seemed genuine and I told him that I would take up the offer. Sadly this was never to happen, since, just after returning to America, the President, as we all know, was assassinated in Dallas'.

JFK aside, Mick McElkenny has led an exciting life. A successful career with Tyrone Minor team saw him win an All-Ireland medal in 1948 and he played for the Co Tyrone side up to 1966. During his military stint he played for the army team and was asked to play for Galway. Preferring to stay with his Tyrone side, he turned down Galway's request - a decision, which he was later to rue somewhat, since the following year Galway and Tyrone met in the semi-final of the All-Ireland championships and Galway overcome the Tyrone side, leaving Mick to ponder on his missing out on an All-Ireland medal!

JFK wasn't the first celebrity to come Mick's way either. While living in the village of Carrickmacross in the late 1950s, he regularly tripped over the feet of the pleasant, if eccentric man, who would lie up against the wall of the local shop reading the paper. 'Patrick' as the eccentric was known, was none other than the now legendary poet, Patrick Kavanagh.

'Patrick was a very pleasant man', said Mick. 'Very down to earth. We didn't realise he was so important - to us he was just a local and one of us'.

Through his playing (violin and banjo) with No Goat's Toe, Mick has now become something of a celebrity himself. The band have been playing for over 30 years, but it's only in the last 15 years or so, since many of the group became officially retired that they have concentrated on playing full-time.

Based in the Moy and Tamneys' pub in particular, the six-piece group has become particularly popular with weddings throughout Ireland. Two years ago the group also went to New York, where they played at many St Patricks events to great accolade.

Mick McElkenny and his friends continue to tour and play their music, but if the Big Man ever needs any material to draw on for his music, he only needs to think back to his own colourful life!

 

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