‘I was JFK’s bodyguard in Ireland’

Inishowen Garda Mick McIlkenny was “dumbfounded” when the news came over the wireless that US President John F Kennedy was dead.

Just a few months earlier the Co Tyrone man - who went on to serve as guard in Donegal for more than 20 years - had been a bodyguard for the American head of state when he toured Ireland.

The former Irish Army sniper - pictured directly to the right of the US president during his trip to Ireland in 1963 - was given the special security detail by his superiors due to his special weapons training.

He joined the US Secret Service on the whistlestop tour of the country during the visit to Ireland in June of that year.

Fifty years after the Dallas assassination, in his Maghera home, Mick, now 81, recalls clearly when he first heard the “shocking news”.

He told the ‘Journal’: “I was driving and a radio news bulletin said that President Kennedy had been shot and injured in Dallas but there were no further details. In the next bulletin at about 8 o’clock, I learned he’d been killed. I was dumbfounded. It was totally shocking and to think that only a few months before I had been at his side,” he said.

“In my job I had to deliver sad news from time to time but I still found that news hard to take that night. I’ll never forget it.”

He was on his way to Stewartstown, which was coincidental in that the man driving Kennedy’s Lincoln Continental limousine through Dealey Plaza when JFK was shot dead was Stewartstown native and fellow Co Tyrone man Bill Greer. The two men may never have met but they were both tied to one of biggest stories of the 20th century.

“It’s quite possible that Bill was in Ireland but it was all so fast moving that I never met him,” Mick said.

During the much anticipated return ‘home’ to Ireland and to his family roots in New Ross in Co Wexford, the president was flanked by secret service and specially plain clothes gardai. Mick McIlkenny - who would later be stationed at Clonmany (10 years), Buncrana, Culdaff, Convoy and Raphoe and be elevated to Garda Sergeant - was delighted to be one of the lucky few to “get the detail”.

“He was a very lively man, he was full of fun. He had a great ‘coming home’ attitude that he was really delighted to be here.”

He recalled that the president was always moved along “very quickly” as every where he went the crowds were “pushing and shoving to try and touch him”.

However, there was no talk of any specific threat to Mr Kennedy. “It was very tense all the time, we were always moving. People were trying to get close all the time and it was our job to control that. People were hysterical in trying to shake his hand but there was never talk of any threats.”

He recalls one incident which showed just how thorough the Secret Service were.

“As the President attended Arbour Hill to watch the cadets drill - which included cadet Brian O’Reilly, later Colonel and Aide-de-camp to President Mary McAleese - a lady came up to us outside and asked if he could come to meet her mother, an old women in a wheelchair with a rug over her legs at the other end of the street. When the president came out the boys beside me stopped him and when I later asked why they did that I was told it was for security as the old women could have had a gun concealed under the rug. That was just the way they did things.”