RUNNYMEDE, England (AP) — There is a quiet and somber feel to this small piece of America on an English hillside, near where the Magna Carta was signed eight centuries ago.
Only a trickle of visitors come to the John F. Kennedy Memorial, located on about a half-hectare (an acre) of land given to the people of the United States by Queen Elizabeth II in an unprecedented act of British affection for the fallen president.
Here, near the Thames River meadow where the founding charter of civil liberties was signed in 1215, the queen came to dedicate the austere monument to a president killed 1½ years previously.
Accompanied by Kennedy’s widow, his two children and two surviving brothers, the queen spoke of “the unprecedented intensity of that wave of grief, mixed with something akin to despair, which swept over our people at the news of President Kennedy’s assassination.”
She spoke for the multitudes. Much of the world learned of Kennedy’s death within minutes, and 50 years later it still feels the loss.
Across six continents, in sports grounds, statues, scholarships, streets, hospitals, bridges, parks and schools, the name of John F. Kennedy is preserved in perpetuity, nowhere more keenly than in the hearts and minds of the Irish.
There he is widely recognized as the nation’s most famous son, whose great-grandfather Patrick emigrated to Boston in 1848 from a 14-hectare (35-acre) farm near the River Barrow in Dunganstown, County Wexford.
That farm in Ireland’s southeast corner has become a focal point for tens of thousands of JFK pilgrims annually since June 1963, when Kennedy visited his ancestral homeland. His four-day tour inspired unparalleled excitement in a then-impoverished land that had never before seen an American president.
In the nearby town of New Ross, a bronze podium bearing microphones and the presidential seal marks the riverside spot where Kennedy spoke. A flame taken from his burial plot in Arlington Cemetery burns at the center of a globe-shaped sculpture dedicated to Ireland’s emigrants.
Carmel Delaney, a New Ross native, was 11, singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” with a crowd of Catholic schoolgirls when JFK’s helicopter landed.
“We wouldn’t have seen a helicopter before. That was something fabulous altogether,” she said. “We knew he was somebody extremely important. We knew he was a god.”
The day after Kennedy’s funeral, Ireland observed a national day of mourning. Tens of thousands queued to sign the U.S. Embassy’s condolence book, and businesses closed so employees could attend Masses in JFK’s memory.
Jacqueline Kennedy gave the president’s Irish relatives the rosary he had in his jacket when he died. It is on display at the Kennedy Homestead.
At the homestead, JFK’s closest living relative in Ireland, fourth cousin Patrick Grennan, says the family is planning no special occasion for the 50th anniversary.
“We Kennedys choose to commemorate life, not death,” Grennan, 38, said while showing a visitor around the homestead. “We celebrate the triumph of his visit to Ireland, his inspirational words. We try not to dwell on the horror of what happened later.”
“I put on the radio, and just at that moment there was a chilling report informing us that the president had been assassinated in Dallas,” Fidel Castro wrote in a recent newspaper column. The usually voluble former president of Cuba recalled being struck dumb. “For all intents and purposes there was nothing that we could talk about.”
In Cuba, Kennedy was reviled for authorizing the Bay of Pigs invasion and perceived as bellicose during the missile crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
“Every Cuban felt like that president was attacking us. You couldn’t have the slightest good will for him,” said Manuel Rodriguez, a 74-year-old former bank employee and militia member who was mobilized during the Bay of Pigs attack and the missile crisis.
He remembers that Kennedy’s assassination shocked Cuba and provoked fears that new tensions would roil the island. Once again he was called up for military duty.
His view of Kennedy has softened somewhat over the years; today Rodriguez believes the hostile U.S. policy toward Cuba was set by Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, and that Kennedy had to “keep up the pace.”