GOOD MORNING DELMARVA - A few months before he was assassinated, President John F. Kennedy made a historic trip to Europe, which included his ancestors' homeland in Ireland.
The event left an indelible impression on the Gaelic country, which recently hosted the nationwide anniversary celebration "JFK 50: The Homecoming." Invited guests included the Kennedy family, singer-songwriger Judy Collins, Riverdance choreographer Michael Flatley … and Salisbury University voice instructor John Wesley Wright.
A singer with the American Spiritual Ensemble, Wright joined three other hand-selected members of the group during four days of performances for the high-profile celebration. His one-of-a-kind experience was made possible by Dr. Pearse Lyons, owner and president of international company Alltech.
Born in Ireland and now living in Kentucky, Lyons is a supporter of the American Spiritual Ensemble. When he learned of plans for the 50th anniversary celebration, he recommended the group because of its musical excellence and symbolic representation of Kennedy's support for civil rights. They sang songs that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others used to punctuate meetings and demonstrations in the 1960s, including "Walk Together, Children" and "I Know I've Been Changed."
Wright and his colleagues began their whirlwind tour shortly after landing in Ireland, joining a community chorus outside Dublin for a cultural exchange concert that evening. The next morning brought a performance on an Irish radio show featuring a panel of Kennedy experts. They then were guests at a 280-person dinner held in the Kennedys' honor. Afterward, once all the clinking of glasses and silverware had stopped, they performed for what, by the standards set the next day, was an intimate crowd.
"All the Kennedys were sitting three feet from me," Wright recalled, adding that the ensemble representatives received accolades from Kennedy's daughter, Caroline.
On Saturday, June 22, some 15,000 gathered before a stage at the Kennedy Monument in New Hope, Ireland, where the president had spoken five decades prior, for the main event of this once-in-a-lifetime celebration.
"The magnitude felt like that of our presidential inauguration," said Wright.
Millions watched the nationally televised ceremony as representatives from the Peace Corps, Special Olympics and others carried a fire that originated with a torch lit from the Eternal Flame at Kennedy's graveside at Arlington National Cemetery. Irish Prime Minister Edna Kenny joined the president's sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, and Caroline Kennedy in lighting Ireland's own version of the Eternal Flame, the Emigrant Flame, inside an iron globe.
Ireland, Wright noted, is "a singing nation." The crowd sang along with Collins during her performances and, following the lead of former Maryland Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, all 15,000 in attendance stood and joined the American Spiritual Ensemble in a powerful post-slavery song used heavily during the civil rights era, "Oh, Freedom." Most Irish may not have experienced the slave conditions that gave birth to American spirituals, but the historical hardships their country has suffered helped them understand, Wright said.
The ceremony culminated as Wright and others joined Collins in a heartfelt rendition of "Amazing Grace." As Collins clutched Wright's hand, a squadron of Irish Air Corps jets flew in formation, with one breaking off from the group to symbolize the loss of Kennedy.
"It was one of the most touching things I've ever experienced," said Wright.
He was not the only one who thought so. Afterward, he and other members of the ensemble were recognized by Irish citizens who had attended the ceremony or watched it on television. From the cab driver who drove them back to their hotel to men gathered in a nearby pub, nearly everyone had the same reaction.
"They would say, ‘Irish men don't share their pain … but you moved me,'" said Wright.
For more information call 410-543-6030 or visit the SU Web site at www.salisbury.edu.