Irish cadets recall honor of performing at JFK funeral

(CBS News) DUBLIN -- For a country already in shock, there was another one waiting by the Arlington cemetery gravesite when the funeral cortege arrived: a smart-looking military unit waiting to deliver the final salute. A smart-looking military unit from a foreign country.

The accents are a hint. Peter McMahon and Martin Coughlan were officer cadets in the Irish Army in 1963 who found themselves at the center of history.

Peter McMahon and Martin Coughlan CBS News
"Pressure was enormous, because we realized when we got there and saw all the battery of cameras, unbelievable," Coughlan says.

They were part of a crack unit whose duties included ceremonial rituals in their own country. When President Kennedy visited Ireland in that year, he received a welcome befitting the greatest-ever hero of the Irish-American diaspora.

It was a connection the visit enhanced.

"I wonder if there are any Kennedys in this audience. Could you hold up your hands so I can see?" the president asked to a crowd during his trip. "Well I'm glad to see a few cousins who didn’t catch the boat."

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"People had photographs of (Pope) John the 23rd and Kennedy together on their walls," Coughlan says.

"And the Sacred Heart," McMahon adds.

In this Nov. 25, 1963 file photo, an Irish cadet honor guard, center rows with arms outstretched, stand in formation as the U.S. flag is lifted from the coffin of President John F. Kennedy during his funeral services. AP
 And when JFK laid a wreath at a memorial to Ireland's fallen heroes, he was so impressed with the cadets' solemn salute that he asked for a special film to be made of it and sent to him.

The cadets were told it was Jackie Kennedy who wanted the ceremony that had so affected her husband be part of his funeral.

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"You start with a general salute first," McMahon says of the drill. "It involves movement of the hands out slowly, like that. Out quickly and slowly in. And then all the heads go down at the same time. So it is very emotional, very solemn, and I think that's what maybe impressed Kennedy in the first place."

To cadets back on the parade ground 50 years later, all that drilling seems a very long time ago.

Asked if they can still perform the drill, McMahon says, "I do it under my wife's orders."

Back then, they felt they had not only honored an American president, they had buried a son of Ireland, too.

"We were only very young fellows at the time," Coughlan says. "Still, it became more and more important as years went on, and now for the 50th anniversary, it's seriously important."

Important to remember and to be remembered now as the Kennedy Cadets.

  • Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips is CBS News senior foreign correspondent, based in London.