28 August 2009

Ted Kennedy and a wall of memories

I went out to Howth yesterday to spend some time with my grandparents. Since my grandfather came out of hospital in June it is like he has a new lease on life. After extensive tests they discovered that he was anemic, and probably had been for many years, but a simple course of iron tablets has sorted it out completely. He literally seems ten years younger.

Over a cup of tea we sat and watched the removal of Ted Kennedy from his house in Hyannis Port, and my grandfather started to reminisce about meeting him in the mid-eighties. On a wall in the house amongst a lifetime of memories is a picture of the two of them standing on the steps of the Capitol Building, when my grandfather brought a Defence Forces' Gaelic Football team on a goodwill tour of the US. What I didn't know before last night was how that meeting was never actually supposed to happen.

Although they were staying in DC the Senator's schedule was too tight to meet the team, despite the best efforts of the Embassy. On their second morning there my grandfather was walking through his hotel lobby and a man came up to talk to him, noticing the Irish Defence Force's logo on the tour blazer he was wearing (although he was a serving general at the time, while in the US they all wore civilian clothes), and invited my grandfather to join him and his wife for breakfast. The man was George McGovern.

Over breakfast McGovern asked if my grandfather and the team had met Ted Kennedy yet, to which he replied no, that the Senator's schedule hadn't allowed it, and the talk then turned to other things. My grandfather said that McGovern was one of the nicest, genuine and most impressive politicians he met on the whole trip. That one chance meeting led to another, for at 9pm that night back in his hotel room my grandfather got a call from Kennedy's office asking if the team would be able to meet the Senator the next morning. Unprompted, McGovern had arranged everything.

The next morning they met at the Senator's office and talked for some time about Ireland and family, and Kennedy posed with the team on the steps of Congress for the photo that would look down on me throughout my teenage years. Like Bertie, my grandfather was impressed with the wall-to-wall photos and Kennedy clan memorabilia in Ted's office, and upon his return to Dublin his own life-wall started to take shape, with family photos gradually overtaking presentations and commemorative plaques as the years went by. He described Kennedy as larger-than-life in all ways. While he would have been too Republican (in the Irish sense of the word) for my grandfather's liking, as he talked to me last night there was a clear sense of the towering figure that Kennedy was for my grandfather's generation (despite being almost ten years Kennedy's senior).

My own image of Kennedy is of the liberal parliamentarian, the progressive elder statesman reminding the rest of the Democratic party of their obligations to the most vulnerable in society. He had his darker and weaker side, much of which was public but no doubt more of which will come to light over the coming weeks, and was a lionising figure for both right and left in America. Perhaps never fully out of the mythologising shadow of his siblings, his legacy as a Senator is nonetheless stronger than any he might have left had he been President.

It is rare that my grandfather and I see eye to eye on politics, beyond our "anybody but Fianna Fail' attitude, but we could both agree on one thing last night, with Kennedy's passing an era in America has come to a close. For the US this is perhaps the true end of the 20th Century.

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