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Reverent memorials mark JFK 50th anniversary

Published: Friday, Nov. 22, 2013 11:37 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Nov. 22, 2013 11:39 a.m. CDT

DALLAS (AP) — A half dozen Irish soldiers toting guns with brilliantly polished bayonets formed a guard of honor outside the U.S. Embassy in Dublin as the U.S. flag was lowered to half-staff in one of several solemn ceremonies planned Friday to mark 50 years since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas.

More than a dozen retired Irish army officers who, as teenage cadets, had formed an honor guard at Kennedy’s graveside in November 1963, gathered in the front garden of the embassy in the heart of the Irish capital to remember the first Irish American to become leader of the free world.

Together with Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore and embassy staff, they observed a minute’s silence and lay two wreaths from the Irish and American governments in memory of JFK.

Similar events were planned for Boston, Washington, and in Dallas. That city will mark the day with a solemn ceremony in Dealey Plaza, through which the president’s motorcade passed when shots rang out on Nov. 22, 1963.

Shortly after sunrise, with the eternal flame flickering in the early morning light, Attorney General Eric Holder paid his respects at Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va.

In Dublin, an Irish army commander at the embassy drew a sword and held it aloft as a lone trumpeter played “The Last Post,” the traditional British salute to war dead. A bagpiper played laments including “Amazing Grace.” A U.S. Marine raised the flag again as the bugler sounded an upbeat “Reveille.”

All the while, busy Dublin traffic continued to pass by outside the iron-fenced embassy. The day was crisp, windless, with trees full of autumn leaves and a cloudless blue sky, the sun blindingly low on the horizon.

The former Irish army cadets invited by Jacqueline Kennedy to serve as the graveside honor guard described the awe — and fear — they experienced as they traveled to the United States 50 years earlier.

“We were young guys, all pretty much 18. We had no passports, no visas. None of us had flown before,” said Retired Col Brian O’Reilly, 68. “We were told on the Saturday night we were wanted for the funeral. The next day we were on the plane with our own president (Eamon de Valera) heading for Washington.”

Retired Commandant Leo Quinlan said he had felt mixed emotions.

“Beside the grave I could see (Ethiopia Emperor) Haile Selassie, (French President) Charles de Gaulle, King Baudouin (of Belgium), (Britain’s) Prince Philip. So you had all that excitement on the one hand,” said Quinlan, 68. “And then on the other you had the sadness everywhere, people crying in the streets, and in the Washington shop windows they displayed shrines to Kennedy with candles burning. You could never forget any of that.”

Gilmore paid tribute to JFK’s legacy and a fiddler, Frankie Gavin, who performed for Kennedy during his visit to the western Irish city of Galway on June 29, 1963, performed a lament and a jig. Gavin was just 6 when his family’s band performed as the Kennedy motorcade passed through Galway.

Gavin, who is credited by Guinness as the world’s fastest fiddler, played only one verse of the “Lament for Oliver Goldsmith” because, he said, he could feel himself tearing up.

“There’s a sense of his (JFK’s) presence here today. . The moment was getting to me.”

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