Mrs Carter’s eventful Irish visit

President Jimmy Carter and his mother Lillian pictured at the White House in 1977

Dermot Carmody

In 1977 ‘Miss Lillian’ Carter, mother of the then recently-elected President of the USA, Jimmy Carter, made an eight-day visit to Dublin as part of a Friendship Force visit by a group of around 250 people from Des Moines, Iowa.

Friendship Force had been started by Jimmy Carter and Presbyterian Minister Wayne Smith a few years previously when Carter was Governor of Georgia.

The President’s mother remained honorary chairperson of Friendship Force until 2002. The organisation promotes intercultural relations through “homestays” such as the one Lillian Carter was making to Dublin, where ordinary people travel and stay with their counterparts in another country. In Carter’s case, her hosts were Tim and Noelle Ryan’s family in Foxrock.

With the Des Moines group having such a notable personage among its number as Lillian Carter, the visit excited media interest on both sides of the Atlantic. Mrs. Carter had quickly become popular with the US press with her charming Southern manner and down to earth wit. Accordingly, The New York Times covered her visit to Ireland in a number of articles, including one about the New Ross “hoax” incident.

Brendan O’Keefe, the proprietor of the Five Counties Hotel in New Ross had received a call purportedly from a representative of Bórd Fáilte, saying the Mrs. Carter planned to visit New Ross to see the ancestral home of John F. Kennedy later that day and would call to the hotel for tea. O’Keefe got the call around 11 am and quickly mobilised to organise the hotel and the surrounding community for a suitable “hooley”.

Suspicions were aroused when a call later in the day to Bórd Fáilte received a bemused response, but it was only when the Garda Sergeant in New Ross got on the blower to Dublin Castle that the call was definitely established to have been a hoax.

The New York Times reported that O’Keefe and the disappointed crowd assembled made the most of it by having a great party anyway, and when word of the hoax got back to Mrs. Carter’s representatives they got in touch with the disappointed hotelier and arranged for him to meet her while she was on a scheduled and genuine visit to Kilkenny.

Most of Mrs. Carter’s visit was centred in Dublin. She was treated to lunches in the Dáil and at the Mansion House, and was entertained at the famous Jury’s Irish Cabaret in the Ballsbridge hotel. She also visited UCD and was a big hit on The Late Late Show, with the Irish Times television reviewer noting that despite his concern at having the already over-exposed celebrity on the show, he was quickly won over by her “outspoken charm” and sense of humour.

Ballsbridge was also where Mrs. Carter planted a maple tree, which is still growing strong after 42 years, and where she and her companions marked the official end of the visit at a dinner in Thomas Prior House.

The group nearly didn’t make it out of Ireland however, with the ITGWU blocking the flight meant to take them home in sympathy with American unions who were involved in strike action with Trans-International Airways, the charter company running the flight.

The Irish Times reported that it took a day of “frantic rescheduling” to work around the union action. Eventually, the group flew to the UK and joined up with a TIA charter flight there. Apparently, this did not sour the visit for Mrs. Carter, who reportedly bade a fond and emotional farewell to Ireland with tears in her eyes before she left.

And apparently she left more than a tree in Herbert Park behind her as a legacy of the trip. Bórd Fáilte subsequently attributed a 14% rise in tourism to Ireland from North America in 1977 to the substantial publicity that Lillian Carter’s visit had received while here.