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Age of hope ended the day we lost JFK.

Byline: Carl Chinn

It is one of my earliest memories, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. I was seven years old and it was a Friday.

On Fridays, Aunt Win always came to our house straight from work at the Midland Wheel in Avenue Road, Aston.

Her arrival was like a weekly Christmas, because her bag would be filled with goodies for me and our kid, Darryl. There were lemon bon bons to suck on, kayli to lick off moistened fingers and The Beano and Dandy comics to read avidly.

It was November, so Our Dad, who was a bookie, was home earlier than in the summer because horse racing ended in the midafternoon with the dark nights - and Uncle Bert was also there because he managed one of Dad's betting shops. Our Mom always made a nice tea and afterwards treated Dad and Uncle Bert to Kunzle's Showboats.

I remember that about then, me and Our Kid were on the floor in the back room reading our comics.

The television was on but the grown-ups were only casting an eye at it as they were more interested in chatting with each other.

Then about half-past-six, a news flash came up on the screen and in sombre tones an announcer explained that President Kennedy had been killed in Dallas, Texas.

Our Mom and Our Winnie started to cry. Our Dad and Uncle Bert were shocked into silence. As for us two youngsters, we just looked from one adult to another, not really understanding what had happened but still realising that it was something dreadful and worrying.

It is difficult now to feel the sense of hope and optimism that had rose up from the person of President John F. Kennedy.

Young, strong and handsome he may have been, but he was also a war hero, a talented writer, a stirring orator and a powerful leader. With striking good looks, a charismatic personality and a keen mind, he was the most alluring of men. It was as if he were cloaked in glamour whilst holding in his hands the expectations of the world for a brighter future.

His assassination that Friday was as if the brief age of hope that had forced back the austere years had ended. Nothing would be the same again and no politician since has captured the dreams and yearnings of so many across the world and made them feel that all good things were possible.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was mourned by millions, not least in Ireland. His mother's family, the Fitzgeralds, hailed from County Limerick, and his father's people from County Wexford.

Like so many, they had been forced to flee their land because of famine, foreign landowners and religious discrimination - and like so many, they made sure that their descendants were proud of their Irish roots.

President Kennedy made that plain when he included a visit to the Republic of Ireland on a tour of Europe in June 1963. Huge but respectful crowds welcomed him in Dublin. The people were patient, joyous and boisterous but not hysterical. My wife, Kay, was among them.

She was five and remembers that she and her older sister and two brothers were taken from their home in Finglas into town by their mom and dad. The gathering was so big along O'Connell Street that she couldn't see anything, so her dad, Mick, lifted her up on to his shoulders.

A big car went past and Kay recalls thinking, "ah, that's who it is, that's why they're all waving, at the man with the brown face - because no-one in Ireland in those days had a tan".

President Kennedy also went to the family's ancestral farm in Dunganstown, County Wexford, where he met Widow Ryan. His second cousin once removed, she was a doughty character whose hospitality was unbounded as she served pot after pot of tea and an amazing amount of sandwiches, soda bread and cakes.

Before he left, President Kennedy accepted a grant of armorial bearings from the Chief Herald of Ireland and he and the Irish President, [ETH]amon de Valera, formed the American Irish Foundation to foster connections between Irish Americans and Ireland.

The first Catholic Irish American president, it is little wonder that Kennedy's allure made him an almost legendary figure both in Ireland and amongst the Irish diaspora. And it is little wonder they mourned his loss so deeply.

In Birmingham, the Lord Mayor launched a Memorial Fund shortly after the assassination but made little progress. What happened next was revealed by the acclaimed mosaic artist Kenneth Budd, who would create the Kennedy Memorial in Birmingham.

Thankfully, Kenneth wrote down in notebooks much about what he was involved with. They have not been published and I am grateful to his son, Oliver, for allowing me to look at them and to Councillor Martin Mullaney for alerting me to them.

According to Kenneth Budd, "the Irish community, somewhat incensed at this lack of response for a son of Old Ireland, asked if they might take over the fundraising.

To this the Mayor readily agreed, but promised that the Corporation would provide a suitable site if the Catholic Committee raised the money and organised the memorial. Since then they worked hard organising football pools, bingo, dances and other fund-raising activities, all they required was a suitable design".

Kenneth found this out while he was working on a commission for the City as part of the Inner Ring Road project. This was to create a mosaic of the old horse fair at the new Holloway Circus traffic island and subway system. One day while he was on site, Kenneth was approached by an Irish mosaicist whom he had met recently at the annual Building Exhibition at Olympia. The Irishman was "obviously bursting to tell us some news. His firm had just been commissioned to produce a memorial to President Kennedy whose tragic assassination had so recently taken place".

As it turned out, nothing more was heard from the stranger 'and none of our friends from the Public Works Department seemed to know a Kennedy Memorial, apart from the information that part of a new section of the Inner Ring Road near St Chads Cathedral might include a Kennedy Memorial Garden within its Interchange'.

Then one morning, Kenneth's associate, Alan, was collecting the weekly wages from the bank when he noticed a Catholic priest at the counter and felt instinctively that he might know something about the Kennedy memorial. Somewhat hesitantly, he approached to make his inquiry.

"It is strange you should ask," replied the priest. "My name is Father Maguire and I am the Chairman of the Kennedy Memorial Committee. Last night we looked at some designs that had arrived from Ireland and were very disappointed with them. I'm not sure now how to proceed."

He then asked Alan why he was interested and Alan explained that they were producing the Horse Fair mosaic. Holloway Circus was, in fact, only a stone's throw from Father Maguire's church, St Catherine's, Bristol Street. "Would you be interesting in producing a design for a Kennedy memorial?" Father Maguire asked. Alan replied that he would have to discuss the matter with Kenneth.

The Kennedy memorial story continues next week.


Work in progress: A cracking photo looking down Holloway Head and across to Smallbrook Street, with the old Scala picture house on the right. In between the two streets, work has begun on Holloway Circus, suggesting that this was taken in about 1961. In the background is the old Market Hall, soon to be demolished, and above it is the Times building. View of yesteryear: Left, St Catherine's on the Horse Fair in 1953 - just a few years before it was knocked down. Early days: Above, Kay Chinn, nee Doyle, with her teacher, Miss Kennedy, on the day she made her Holy Communion in 1965 - almost two years after she saw President Kennedy in Dublin. On the left is Kay's younger brother, Michael. The Kennedy Memorial, with thanks to Oliver Budd, Budd Mosaics - The Public Art Mosaics of Kenneth and Oliver Budd (2007).
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Publication:Birmingham Mail (England)
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Feb 11, 2012
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