Our Man in The White House- Witness to an Assassination!

The Kennedy Connection

Where does inspiration come from? Anniversaries and memories- perhaps! Well at least at the moment that’s where it seems to originate, and in keeping with my previous post where I referenced my grandmother Molly’s influence on my historical career, I feel it necessary again to credit her with providing the inspiration for this blog post called – Our Man in The White House – Witness to an Assassination – The Kennedy Connection! This week, I noticed a post on social media that Epic Museum- Dublin have launched a new exhibition commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the visit of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th President of the United States of America to Ireland in June 1963. This set off a few questions in my own mind, what was my earliest memory of President Kennedy? When did I first hear his name or what caused me to query that plate on the wall? and years later how the genealogist and historian in me decided on this particular anniversary it might be pertinent to bring to light a little-known story from West Cork – from Dunmanway concerning “Our Man in The White House- Witness to an Assassination – The Kennedy Connection!” Newspapers and media journalists in the course of the next week or two will delve deep into the archival vaults of Raidió Teilifís Éireann and newspaper archives will be dusted off, locating footage and imagery of those utterly important days, (politically and socially), when Ireland welcomed a man of Irish ancestry home with a hearty Irish welcome.  A welcome since replicated for subsequent Presidents of the United States of America but perhaps none to rival that visit of President John F. Kennedy. But what was special about this man, his wife and his entourage? Why did President John F. Kennedy resonate so loudly with all Irish people, young or old – rich or poor?  Was it the new square box in the corner of the room -the new television set or the wireless in the room or the increased electrification of the Island of Ireland with more of the rural communities being able to participate in and view the arrival of the Kennedys and follow their visit across the nation. Could it have been religion – a Catholic President?

Vintage 1960’s President Kennedy Commemorative plate, in the shape of a heart. with heart shaped piercings to the rim / edge, with gold edging on white plate with blue background. Very unusual design, it has hanging holes to the rear with a vintage piece of ribbon to hang on the wall. Featuring an image of the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy. Beautiful picture of the young Mr and Mrs Kennedy. John Fitzgerald Kennedy (May 29, 1917 – November 22, 1963), often referred to by his initials JFK, was an American politician who served as the 35th president of the United States from 1961 until his assassination 1963. The Plate date was produced from 1961 – probably produced either during his time as President or shortly after his death in 1963. Approx 15cm / 6″ wide – Made in Japan (maybe by Arrow ceramics)

At a young age (I was born many years after the visit), I remembered looking at a happy couple on a wall. A picture of a man and a woman on a small plate, dangling precariously by a worn ribbon that was looped through holes on the plate itself (and hanging on one of those old-fashioned hooks reminiscent of the late 1970s). Prior to asking Molly (my grandmother) who this couple were, I always assumed them to be a relative of ours as they were given pride of place on a wall near a picture of the Sacred Heart (later it was replaced by one of the newer ones with a perpetual red- candle-light-flickering). In hindsight now, I realise that this scene was probably replicated all over Ireland and that just about every household in Ireland gave such commemorative items pride of place on walls and in display cupboards in 1963. Following the assassination, such plates etc became almost religiously important and at least in my area, pictures of President Kennedy hung alongside religious images and statuettes. I remember asking Molly, who were they? Her answer was simple- this good man was assassinated a few months after his visit to Ireland and therefore it was almost a form of prayer and memorialisation to position it near the Sacred Heart picture. She mentioned something along the lines that it was almost like a type of mourning as the people realised, he would not be coming back again to visit the land of his ancestors. I now wonder was this the start of that special relationship with America, that an American President chose to follow up on his ancestry and for once emigration and one’s children emigrating was not foremost on every Irish Mother’s mind. Did it bring the Irish Mammy somewhat closer to that place where her children now lived? Was Kennedy coming back to his roots -symbolic and did it herald the birth of a new modern identity for Ireland? Did it give hope that emigrants might possibly be able to return home one day?
To this day I can still visualise the ceramic commemorative plate on a green painted wall. I had completely forgotten about the little plate, but then memories of a childhood house and Molly came flooding in… again. While mulling over this blog in my mind, I decided to google and see if I could locate a similar plate and luckily, I found an image of the said vintage plate complete with the history of it and manufacturers details. This particular plate was manufactured in Japan.


https://www.carousell.com.my/p/vintage-president-kennedy-commemorative-pierced-heart-shape-plate-president-and-mrs-john-f-kennedy-15cm-made-in-japan-1207416190/

As I got older and learned more the Kennedy Plate drew more questions? Not about President Kennedy, this time about his wife, who was Jacqueline Kennedy? Peeking at magazines, images of her chic Parisienne style and oversized black framed sunglasses grabbed my attention – it was fashion. President Kennedy’s lineage was clear, and they gave Ireland hope on a political scene, while also making us aware of how others live and dress in the USA. It was aptly described as Camelot. Following the assassination, the mystique that was Camelot in the White House never faded, and book after book, documentary after documentary was made. I even remember as a university student one summer while visiting New Yok, I made it my business to buy the latest book about Kennedy at Barnes & Noble on 5th Avenue. I thought I was the coolest history student back at UCC with my latest edition from the renowned establishment. Barnes & Noble to me then was the equivalent to what Brown Thomas is to the fashion aficionado.

However, there was another side to the Kennedy story that I had not heard about when I was young. That same Summer – I visited the President Kennedy Library in Boston and toured the replica rooms of the Oval Office & the White House and other exhibits, including items from Cork displayed in a glass case which were presented to President Kennedy on his Irish Tour. Little did I realise the significance of the Cork Visit in terms of the West Cork connection until many years later. During the last few years as I researched some very interesting  Irish – American links between West Cork and USA  – I uncovered (though it wasn’t hidden – just hidden really hidden in plain sight locally- to the point that no one bothered to even mention it)  Our Man in the White House– and witness to the Kennedy Assassination on that fateful day in Dallas, Texas – a man called Lawrence F. O’Brien (1917-1990), close friend of President Kennedy , post- master general and namesake of the NBA Basketball- O’Brien Trophy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_O%27Brien .

Lawrence O’Brien Jr. was reared in Springfield Massachusetts, the son of a woman from Dunmanway, Co.Cork and his father,  I believe to be from Kibrittain, Co.Cork. Lawrence Francis O’Brien Jr. (July 7, 1917 – September 28, 1990) was an American politician, friend and political strategist of the Kennedys and basketball commissioner. He was one of the United States Democratic Party‘s leading electoral strategists for more than two decades. He was Postmaster General in the cabinet of President Lyndon Johnson and chair of the Democratic National Committee. O’Brien was also commissioner of the National Basketball Association from 1975 to 1984, and the NBA Championship Trophy is named after him.

His father- Lawrence was a local leader and very active in the Democratic Party and he gave Lawrence an early taste of politics recruiting him at just eleven years of age to assist as a volunteer on the 1928 Presidential Campaign of Al Smith and so began O’Brien’s career as a passionate Democrat.

In his own words:

It has been my privilege to know most of the Democratic leaders of my time. As a boy, I shook hands with Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt when they campaigned in my hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts, during the 1928 and 1932 campaigns. I joined forces with Jack Kennedy in 1951, and a decade later I accompanied him to the White House. I served both President Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson as a director of congressional relations; I served in President Johnson’s Cabinet as Postmaster General; I have twice been Democratic National Chairman; and have played a major role in the past four Democratic presidential campaigns.

Lawrence O’ Brien dedicated his memoir No Final Victories published in 1974 to his parents:

In memory of my parents,

LAWRENCE F. O’BRIEN, SR., and MYRA SWEENEY O’BRIEN

Who came to this country with no money and little education but by their hard work made a good life for themselves and their children

 

Who then were Lawrence and Myra O’Brien? From my recent research I discovered that they were married in 1913 in Massachusetts, and they settled in the Springfield area. Lawrence was involved in real estate and Myra ever the hospitable host, opened a café and one of the staples on the menu was Irish stew and dumplings. It became her signature dish. They encountered difficulties and took a hit on their real estate during the Great Depression, various census of the USA refers to a hotel and the café. The first café opened in 1914 and following Depression opened a new café in proximity to the political offices and local city officials. The café became a place of political activism. As Lawrence Sr. became more politically active, he donated the use of his café for the campaign headquarters of western Massachusetts for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential campaign in 1932. Lawrence’s exposure to his father’s set of friends and his early political education served him well. Growing up in the Springfield area, exposed to politics, young Lawrence was a bartender for his parent and a student of Law at Northeastern University. Turned down by the Navy due to a problem with his eyesight, he finally was drafted into the army for limited service as an interviewer for men who had gone absent without leave. After the end of World War 2 Lawrence began his interest in politics in earnest. His first meeting with Jack Kennedy took place in 1947, when he was serving his first term in Congress. Kennedy was impressed by O’Brien and soon the political alliance was cemented with Kennedy requesting that he become his director of organisation in his political campaign for the Senate.

In his memoir, O’Brien states Kennedy was particularly taken with Lawrence’s mother Myra Sweeney O’Brien. She impressed him with her political views and opinions on local politics. During the presidency of 1960, O’Brien was strategist and developed several ideas for election campaigns, these became known as The O’Brien Manual. They were distributed widely and even internationally. Following the success of the Kennedy victory, O’Brien became the man with West Cork heritage, destined for The White House. He turned down the position of Deputy Postmaster General (although later he took up the post of Postmaster General under President Johnson’s administration). Kennedy persuaded O’Brien to accept the position of Special Assistant to the President for congressional relations and personnel. Lawrence even made the cover of Time Magazine in September 1961. He was well regarded amongst the media outlets for his liaising between Congress and the Kennedy Administration. Early achievements that O’Brien was involved in was the increase in the minimum wage from $1 to $1.25 and the introduction of the Civil Rights Bill to Congress in June 1963, about two weeks before the trip to Ireland and Cork City.
On the 28th June 1963, President John F. Kennedy visited Cork as part of his Irish Tour. Lawrence O’Brien, his assistant, and adviser accompanied him – and why not? O’Brien was coming home to meet his aunt and the discover the birth county of his mother and father.
Lawrence details the discussions surrounding the White House Staff of Irish descent and how they flew into Ireland on one of the presidential “backup planes”. The following are excerpts from his Memoir of the day they visited Cork City.

In June 1963, when Kennedy was about to leave on his European trip, he arranged for all members of the White House staff of Irish descent to be flown to Ireland for this visit there. We soon discovered a high percentage of “instant” Irish-Americans on the staff and a party of about fifty of us set off for Ireland on one of the presidential back-up planes.
We met the President- fresh from his triumphant stop in West Berlin- at Dublin Airport and he began a tour of the country of his ancestors. I went with him by helicopter. The visit deeply moved him and rekindled in him a sense of his Irish heritage.
When we reached County Cork where my parents were born a motorcade took us to the Cork City Hall, and there, along with the city dignitaries was my aunt, Julia Sweeney, my mother’s youngest sister. Kennedy had assigned someone to find out which of his staff members had relatives still living in Ireland. My Aunt Julia lived in Dunmanway, a town near Cork, and Dave Powers had several cousins who were also at the City Hall ceremony.
My Aunt Julia, an articulate, gray haired woman with a slight brogue, was making the most of her opportunity. She had brought some neighbours with her and they were thrilled to watch from the VIP section as Kennedy addressed the huge crowd and even more thrilled when at the end of the remarks Kennedy said:
“Two of my close associates, Larry O’Brien and Dave Powers, have relatives who are with us today, and I’d like to ask Larry and Dave to introduce them”. So Dave and I presented our relatives while the audience cheered. At the reception following the speech, my Aunt Julia was introduced to the President.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Kennedy”, my aunt said. “You’re very fortunate to have my nephew Lawrence working for you”. The President grinned at her and said “You may be right”. As the reception ended I said my goodbys to Aunt Julia, and she looked at me in surprise, “Lawrence aren’t you going to stay for a few days?”. Fifty thousand people were cheering outside, the motorcade was starting to move, and I told my aunt I’d better leave Cork immediately or I might never get out. On a later trip to Ireland, I visited Aunt Julia’s home and noted three pictures on her wall – Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy and Lawrence O’Brien. At Shannon Airport a day or two later, …… a choir sang a beautiful version of “Come Back to Erin” and Kennedy was deeply and visibly moved, as were we all. If there was a dry eye at the airport, I missed it.
No Final Victories, A Life in Politics from Kennedy to Watergate, pp 152-153, (1974),

As a historian, Dunmanway native and West Corkonian watching some footage online of the cavalcade swooping into Cork City around the familiar landmarks of Cork City of the Presidential visit to Cork, one cannot be anything other than proud when we discover, who were Lawrence O’Brien’s parents, aunt Julia and his lineage and how to the few of us in Dunmanway (who know the connection) – he was Our Man in the White House. Let’s explore his West Cork roots and the West Cork connection to the White House- there may be more than one!

Lawrence O’ Brien Jr, is the son of Lawrence O’Brien Sr. and Myra Sweeney (often in records referred to as Sweeny). Both were born in West Cork. Myra Sweeny (born approx. 1886/7 -died 1958) was one of about ten children, for many of whom I have located baptism and birth registrations. Myra was the daughter of Denis Sweeney and Ann Crowley (who married in Dunmanway in September 1869) and sister of the above-mentioned Julia. They resided at different points in their lives between three townlands around the town of Dunmanway, Inchafune- Shiplough/ Derrynasfagh – Direens. Direens -their final residence was where Denis (grandfather of Lawrence O’Brien) died aged 95 years of old age with his daughter Julia, present at his death. Julia appears to have been the youngest daughter, unmarried and appears to have been the last of the family in the area. Denis’s wife, Ann died in 1937 and Julia died six years after the Presidential visit in 1969. All three are buried together in St. Patrick’s RC Church in Dunmanway. Julia is remembered locally by a few of the elderly in the area, some of whom fondly remembers visiting her in their youth for sweets on the way home from school. Others remember her from her time as a housekeeper, others remember her for having a nephew who was a friend to President Kennedy and the closest link Dunmanway has to The White House. Some family friends are still in the area.

Image taken from his memoir- No Final Victories, p206.
Church Marriage Record, Denis and Johanna (Crowley) Sweeny, 23rd Sept. 1869

I located the image of Julia on the steps of City Hall, Cork, June 28th, 1963, at the local historical centre a few years ago, it has the same column façade in the background that a photo of President Kennedy also appears in, taken the same day. I refer to this image as the Proud Aunt Moment!

Family Plot – Denis and Ann Sweeney and Julia Sweeney, St. Patrick’s Church, Dunmanway Parents of Myra Sweeney and her sister Julia Sweeney.

Myra Sweeney emigrated to the United States in 1903 and settled in Massachusetts, there she met Lawrence O’Brien Senior. He had emigrated in 1900. Evidence of these dates was acquired through the Census Records of USA. I also located their marriage registration for May 1913. Myra and Lawrence had two children – Lawrence (b.1917) and Mary (b.1921/22). Exploring the various official records, I noted Lawrence to be ten years older than Myra. Myra died aged 72 years in 1958. Both Lawrence & Myra are buried in Saint Michael’s Cemetery, Springfield, MA. Many of Myra’s siblings also emigrated to the USA also.
Working back through the records, I believe that Lawrence O’Brien Sr. was from Kilbrittain in County Cork (born May 1872-1950). Lawrence Jr.’s Memoir also mentions that his father had a brother Denis who also was in America. From research to date it appears that his paternal grandparents appear to be Timy (Timothy) Brien and Hanora Walsh. I discovered three siblings to date, Denis, Margaret-Mary and Timothy Jr. Denis appears to be the eldest born in 1866 and he also emigrated to America. Lawrence was the third of those I identified. All were baptised in Kilbrittain Church, Diocese of Cork and Ross.

With the 60th Anniversary of the Presidential visit to Cork City by Kennedy around the corner I decided to listen to the speech which he delivered on that day at City Hall– June 28th ,1963. His words were made more poignant when one thinks about the message it contained about the relationship “kinship” between Ireland and USA and his reference to Ireland’s best export – her people.

“Ireland has one export and that is its people and they have gone all over the United States and the United States has been generous to them and I think it is not unfair to say that they have been generous themselves with their sons and daughters to the United States”.

Kennedy also mentioned in that speech that Ireland was the “first country in the 20th century that led the desire for national independence”, he then followed these words by mentioning how he noticed about half of the honour guard wearing the blue ribbon, signifying service in the Congo and the issues of the day. This also connected back to dear elderly friend of mine in Dunmanway. I recently spoke with him, an Irish Army Veteran, who served in the Congo and he told me of how – he (involved in radio signal and communications) told his fellow comrades in the “blistering heat” of the Congo – “I told the lads – today is the day Kennedy is visiting Ireland and Cork”. While Kennedy was mentioning blue ribbons – the Irish Army were pondering Kennedy’s visit back home in Cork.

 

P

ondering the West Cork Connection- our Man in the White House, Lawrence O’Brien career had many more poignant moments. Lawrence was in Dallas on the day of the assassination, 22 November 1963, in a car behind the President. I was moved to read his account of the moments after the assassination and how he was present in the hospital where President Kennedy’s body lay, the details about the size of the coffin (it weighed 500 pounds), Jackie Kennedy’s demeanour in those terrible moments and her comment about Lawrence’s friendship with her husband. A man whose parents were from County Cork and grandparents are buried in West Cork was present at this momentous milestone in history. Forever cementing the connection between West Cork and the White House.

“She spoke at length of what we three had meant to the President. I think that his reaction to his trip to Ireland that Summer, his rekindled interest in his Irish heritage, had made her more understanding of the bond that united us. “you were with him in the beginning and you’re with him in now”, she would say. “That’s as it should be”. From No Final Victories, p160

Pages 158-161 deal with the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the flight back to DC and how Lawrence, Jackie, Ken and Dave sat in the “small tail compartment of Air Force One” with the casket. A watershed moment for the world.

In the post Kennedy era, Lawrence O’Brien continued in politics and served as Congressional Liaison Office to the Johnson Administration and in 1965-66 decided to leave politics but was enticed back when President Johnson offered his the position of Postmaster General, he claimed, “ for an immigrants son, for a fellow who had worked his way up the political ladder, it was just too great an honor to refuse”. In 1968 Lawrence exited this role and became Chairperson of the Democratic National Committee. That year he supported Robert Kennedy in his campaign for the presidency. Following the assassination of Robert, his friend, he then returned to work on the campaign of Hubert Humphrey, Robert Kennedy’s replacement whose opponent was Richard Nixon. O’Brien was again elected Chairperson of the DNC in 1969. The early 1970s were marked with the Watergate scandal and there is little in his memoirs about them, other than there was harassment involving questionable investigations into his own financial affairs. Similar investigations were undertaken into many of his political friends and allies by the Nixon Administration. It is reported that he may have become a lobbyist for Howard Hughes at the end of his career, which may have been a reason for the harassment as its is alleged that Hughes defaulted a loan to Nixon’s brother.

A Career Change- was in the offing and in 1975, coming from Springfield, MA- the home of basketball- Lawrence O’Brien was appointed the Commissioner of the National Basketball Association. A supporter of the Boston Celtics, he was now commissioner and set about revitalising the sport with scholarships, media deals and was named Sportsman of the Year in 1976. In 1984 the NBA Championship Trophy was renamed the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy in honour of his services to basketball. There is a somewhat curious connection and irony in the having a trophy with a link to Dunmanway. The NBA Trophy is named after a man whose mother hailed from Dunmanway and the GAA trophy Sam Maguire Cup is also named after a man from Dunmanway, whose homeplace of Mallabracha is about two or three miles away from the homeplace of Lawrence’s mother, Myra Sweeney of Direens, Dunmanway.

Larry O’Brien Trophy,

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_O%27Brien_Championship_Trophy

 

There is a further curious irony that many basketball players are linked with Cork’s Neptune Stadium. As the various leagues and games occur I do wonder how many realise the connection that is the NBA O’Brien Trophy and Dunmanway and Kilbrittain- perhaps it’s time to have an O’Brien Trophy in Cork and Ireland! Just a thought!!

Lawrence married Elva Brassard in 1944, their son, Lawrence O’Brien III, a lobbyist- residing in Washington DC today, who continues his father’s legacy and was instrumental in setting up the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives in DC. The National Archives Museum’s Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery is home to temporary exhibitions that draw from the billions of records in the National Archives’ holdings nationwide, allowing visitors to explore such topics as  the government’s effect on foodphotography from the 1970s, the Civil War, and the inside story of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Many exhibits created by the National Archives exhibition team premiere in the O’Brien Gallery, then travel to museums around the country.  In his honour, the Lawrence F. O’Brien family helped create the O’Brien Gallery and continues to generously support exhibitions. Some O’Brien papers are the JFK Presidential Library in Boston.

The take-aways from this research are immense – there was a West Cork man in the White House! Senator Ted Kennedy speaking at his funeral in 1990 claimed O’Brien was the “founding father of post- war American politics and…most of all he was one of the best friends the Kennedy family ever had and we miss him dearly”.
With such an accolade and a life in politics – from humble parents from Dunmanway and Kilbritain -perhaps its fitting on this the 60th anniversary of President Kennedy’s Visit to Ireland and in particular Cork – that this man be remembered now more than ever.

He joins a list of distinguished Irish Americans that claim ancestry to Dunmanway…… but that’s another blog post for another anniversary! Dunmanway’s Irish-American Heritage!


©Michelle O’Mahony, OM History Consultant, June 2023

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