Godfrey Graham’s first assignment with RTÉ was to cover John Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in 1963 this Friday – this Friday 50 years to the day of JFK’s assassination Graham will be in the Courthouse Studios gallery in Ennistymon to speak about an exhibition of his work. Joe Ó Muircheartaigh reports.
History through the lens
THERE he is, pictured with one of the giants of 20th century cinematography David Lean on the set of ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ in rugged west Kerry.
One artist to another, or as Ennis photographer Liam Hogan puts it, one genius to another. “Godfrey is a genius with a camera,” says Hogan, “the things he could do with a camera,” he adds.
For Graham it all started with John F Kennedy visit 50 years ago. “It was my first assignment,” recalls Graham, “and it was the start of a great adventure when I got as close to him with my camera that I could reach out and touch him, while I also got the opportunity to observe him at very close quarters with thousands around and in intimate surroundings. It was an exhilarating few days, but hectic.”
It was after 8pm and President Kennedy had just landed at Dublin Airport, but amid all the hoopla Godfrey Graham had 9 O’Clock News.
“It was very tight,” recalls Graham, “but myself and my colleague Simon Weafer had to get that specific shot. It was 8.20pm when we got to photograph Kennedy passing in Drumcondra and straight away we got the film to a motorcycle courier who was on standby who raced who raced to RTÉ with the footage.”
So began a hectic few days for the 25 year old as he raced around Ireland with Kennedy. “I remember after those first shots, the next thing myself an Simon Weafer did was get into our Zephyr Zodiac six-cylinder car and drive overnight to New Ross.
“In New Ross I remember I had a camera in one hand and a tripod in the other and was running so I could get down to this truck to film the president. When I got to the back of the truck the motorcade had started. There were about 50 or 60 overseas cameramen on board. I had to get up there with them.
“The presidential car with the six or eight security people standing on the running boards was on the move – that was about three feet behind me on the road and the truck I was trying to get up on was in front of me.
“I had no hands to get up and comments were being directed at me from the truck: ‘kid, get out of the way, get out of the way, you’re in the shot’. I just kept running behind the truck because I knew something would have to happen – somebody would have to help me or the Secret Service guys or the Gardai would take me out of the way.
“Next thing these two big burley NBC and CBS movie cameramen stopped filming and they picked me up by the elbows and they threw me up on the truck behind them out of the way. I was able to get to my feet and get my camera on the tripod and get set up,” he adds.
Graham’s determination had got him there – now to get more shots, now to get as close as possible with those 50 or 60 other cameramen out for the same goal. “You got to get the shot,” he says.
“I could have touched him by reaching out my hand. I was that close, but apart from that it’s the memory of how excited and overjoyed the people were because he had linked himself to them. I was overjoyed too. I was 25 years of age on the brink of my career and I was getting a chance to document some history.”
From there it was back to Dublin for what Graham describes as another “huge” opportunity. “I was told by Head of News Des Greeley, ‘You’re going to a private dinner in Áras an Uachtaráin that President de Valera is giving to the President Kennedy. Two cameramen from the White House – a movie cameraman and stills guy – will be there and two from Ireland. Nobody else.’
“From racing the streets of New Ross and fighting my away into position to get the shot, I was now being brought into the lair Áras an Uachtaráin to this intimate setting with President Kennedy and the de Valeras.
“The extraordinary thing about it was I was able to observe and photograph the presidential party. I was able to observe the president interact with those around him and the body language was fascinating.
“It was quite obvious that President Kennedy was absolutely fascinated and honoured to meet President de Valera. He knew the history of the man and how he had been so much part of the fight for freedom.
“We were there for a half an hour – no managers or people getting us in for the photocall or getting us out. There was a wonderful warmth from the man – you really sensed that this meant something to him. It meant something because of his family. It was the classic roots thing. He felt it, just like us. He felt it very, very strongly. It was really genuine and it was everywhere he went,” he adds.
It was in New Ross, it was in the Áras and in Shannon as he departed on June 29 – and it was in Washington a few weeks later when President Kennedy provided another filming opportunity for Godfrey Graham and a few more of the RTÉ crew.
“A message came from the White House to our Director General Kevin McCourt,” recalls Graham, “and it was a direct request from President Kennedy for a film of the Cadet School performing the drill that had impressed him so much at the 1916 memorial at Arbour Hill. We did a 15-minute film that was sent to Washington and is now in the John F Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.”
A few months later, for those same cadets it was a case of from Arbour Hill to Arlington for Kennedy’s funeral.