Working as a Lighting Director with the National television station one can toil, for weeks, on “run-of-the-mill programmes” – light entertainment, sports, news and current affairs. Then out of the blue you get something of interest – national interest and sometimes-international interest. One of these occasions was in May 1984 when I received a phone call, “you are the Lighting Director working on President Reagan’s visit to Ireland” – “you are going to Ballyporeen” – my instant reply was “O.K. but where is Ballyporeen? And why is President Reagan going there?”
Ballyporeen in 1984 was a very small, rural village in Co. Tipperary, seventeen miles from the town of Cahir set in a valley between the Knockmeldown and Galtees mountains with a population of about three hundred inhabitants and a few hundred more living in the surrounding hinterland. Once a thriving town on the main coach road linking Dublin and Cork, with a passing trade that gave the opportunity of providing boarding houses and Inns for those commuters. In 1841 Ballyporeen had a population of over four thousand people.
In 1911 Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, was born in Tampico, a village located in Whiteside County, Illinois and he was coming to Ballyporeen to visit his ancestral home where his great-grandfather Michael Regan (spelling without the first a) was baptized in the local church in 1829. Michael first moved to London in 1851 and then to Illinois in 1857. The President said on the day of his visit – “Now, thanks to you and the efforts of good people who have dug into the history of a poor immigrant family, I know at last, whence I came. This has given my soul a new contentment; and it is a joyous feeling; it is like coming home after a long journey.”
My first visit to Ballyporeen was on Tuesday 15th May 1984, accompanied by other members of the Television Production Team. First impressions: – a typical laid-back country village, the local people going about their daily routine and chatting with local farmers as they parked their cars and tractors along its four narrow streets while they visited the few local shops that were still trading. Walking down Main Street one could see, terrace houses on the right, a number of derelict shop units to the left and a proposed site for a President Reagan Museum. At the lower end of the village the local public house with the name O’Farrell’s Lounge engraved over the door. On that first visit we were met by the local organizing committee and a representative of the U.S. Secret Service. We were there for a “walk-through” and to get a detailed briefing of the planned visit, which turned out to be an exact replica of what did happen on the day.
At 12.55 hrs on Sunday 3rd June six helicopters landed in the local G.A.A. field at the top of the town. They carried security staff and members of the Irish and world press. These British Airways helicopters were normally used to ferry oil workers from Aberdeen to the North Sea oil rigs – they were hired, for this visit, at a cost of £170,000. Then the Presidential helicopter, Marine One arrived and there greeting the President and Mrs Reagan was a small welcoming committee led by the local Curate Fr Eanna Condon. This landing spot was exactly fifty paces from the gate leading into Church Street where a telephone was attached to a tree. This was one of five digital telephones installed in the village, all linked directly to the White House telephone system. These phones were never more than fifty paces from the President at any time during his visit.
Leaving the G.A.A. field the group turned left into Church Street and enter the Parochial House were Fr Condon and the Parish Priest Fr Murphy, in a private meeting, displayed the Church register in which the name: Regan of Doolis is written. Then the President and his entourage walked across the road and into the Church of the Assumption for a short service. The Secret Service representative gave very strict instructions here. No lighting, camera or sound cables on the floor, all the lamps and the chokes that go with these lamps to be placed in the ceiling away from the centre isle of the Church. There were two camera positions, one on a tower over the front porch and another beside the altar. All cables had to enter and exit through the windows. The Presidential party left the Church and walked down Main Street and unveiled a plaque outside the proposed President Reagan Museum. This museum opened some months following the visit but closed a few years later. Moving further down the street to O’Farrell’s Lounge now named Ronald Reagan Lounge where the President drank a glass of Smithwicks. Strict instructions were given again that no cable could run close to where the Presided stood. On that first day we walked the route a number of times, the director and senior cameraman getting camera positions, sound planning where each microphone would be positioned. Also at that meeting were members of the local E.S.B. and as we left the G.A.A. field and walked down Main Street there were electric poles with overhead cables crossing the road. Strict instructions were given to the E.S.B. that all cables were to be re-routed underground. The President was not allowed to walk under any cable that carried electricity.
When we arrived on Wednesday 30th, four days before the visit to start the rigging, many changes had taken place in Ballyporeen. The laid-back feeling had changed to an air of excitement. Paint was in evidence everywhere, the derelict shop units were now turned into souvenir outlets selling local soil for fifty pence a packet, fast-food outlets and anything to attract the tourists who were now very noticeable around town. One unit was painted white and named: The White House Café and Farrell’s lounge was renamed Ronald Reagan Lounge. Members of the Secret Service were much in evidence and their numbers grew day by day. As we set about the rigging, detailed plans had to be shown where each piece of equipment and cable would run.
The E.S.B. had just completed their re-routing of cables. As we walked the route from helicopter A – landing point to helicopter B – take-off point no overhead cable was visible. A Secret Service member was with us at all times inspecting each piece of equipment we placed at each location. From the lighting/electrical point of view the Church was our biggest and most meticulous part of the rig. Attention was focused on a derelict petrol pump half way down Main Street. The tank under the ground was checked and found to contain no liquid and it was filled with sand. Then two men under the supervision of the Secret Service spent two days taking this battered, rusted pump apart, piece by piece and examined each section and finally putting it all back together again and completely sealed the unit. Why it was not dismantled and removed altogether we could never find out. You were not allowed to ask any questions. Then on Friday a team of inspectors, again under the supervision of the Secret Service, lifted each man-hole and inspected them one by one – running rods, shining flash lamps, mirrors on the end of long rods and if large enough a man entered the man-hole. As each one was inspected they were spot welded for permanent closure.
Each camera position and shot taken was monitored and particular attention was given to the camera that showed the President leaving the G.A.A. field and walking to the Parochial House. As the camera panned it featured the end wall of a building with a large billboard. Bush Irish Whiskey had rented this board and placed a large advert – BUSH The President’s Choice. We knew all day Saturday this shot was viewed with great interest. When we arrived on Sunday morning the bill board was under armed guard and somebody had painted out the letter P and it now read BUSH The resident’s Choice.
Orders were given: all the crew to be in town before 7am. After breakfast at 5.30am and the seventeen-mile drive from Chair we started a camera rehearsal at 8am and checked each shot and I checked each lighting position – the Church, the main performance area in Main Street and then into the Ronald Reagan Lounge. I had reached that point at 11.30am and word came through that the town was in “Lock Down” and nobody had permission to move from whatever area they were in at that time. I was in the company of about twenty reporters and photographers corned off in the small lounge with a semi-circler counter, under the supervision of three Secret Service, two men and one woman, all armed with sub-machine guns. A number of local people, with special passes, became victims to the extraordinarily tight security when they failed to gain entrance to the parish church for the service. People living in Main Street who wanted to watch the visit from their upstairs windows were told to close all windows and leave their house and a member of the Special Branch remained in each house for the duration of the visit. The Secret Service agents were always wary of snipers.
As the President and Mrs Reagan walked down Main Street, now wearing rain gear, they were followed by their limousine, the Secret Service limousine and a black station wagon known as the War Wagon with five agents armed with sub-machine guns, assault rifles, automatic handguns and a variety of hand-grenades and stun-grenades. While one drove the vehicle, the others sat looking out the side and rear windows, cradling machine guns on their laps and scanning the crowd for would-be assassins.
Meanwhile, I was held in the corner of the Ronald Reagan Lounge with the reporters and photographers. One of the Secret Services men with a sub-machine gun pointing in our direction said, “if you are told, at any time, to hit the ground – drop to the floor and lie face down with your hands behind your head and wait further instructions”. With the heat in the lounge, a flap on one of the lamps dropped and shaded the light hitting the main area. After three weeks planning and waiting for the shot of President Reagan drinking that pint of Smithwicks, to be beamed across the world, the scene was going to be under lit. Panic set in and after asking one of the armed personnel, on three occasions, he finally accompanied me across the floor with his sub-machine gun pointing in my direction. I gently lifted the flab, said “Thanks Sir” and prayed it would remain in an upright position. A keg of beer was brought in and tasted a number of times. The pint glass was washed and dried so many times it was nearly worn away before the pint was eventually pulled. Finally the party entered the lounge, the President had his pint and Mrs Reagan held baby Catherine Nancy O’Farrell, daughter of the owners. Press photographs, world wide television coverage, questions from reporters and chitchat – all lasted less than five minutes. As well as one of the digital telephones in the lounge a U.S. Navy officer accompanied the President carrying a briefcase with electronic command equipment, which the President could use to order a nuclear strike. This equipment was kept within ten paces of the President at all times, day or night.
Then the party moved outside, now in bright sunshine, to a viewing stand where Comhaltas Ceoltóiri Éireann, singer Anne Mulqueen, fiddler Kathleen Nesbitt accompanied by fiddlers and dancers entertained the visiting dignitaries. The M.C. for this section was R.T.E. Newscaster Derek Davis. After fifteen minutes of this entertainment the Presidential party walked the short distance behind the public house to a waiting helicopter and as it lifted into a dark sky so did the tension that we lived with for five days. We were free again to move as we wished and the six hundred protesters that were held four miles outside the village were allowed to march the streets of Ballyporeen. We had a day and a half to complete the De-Rig and for me it was back to Studio 3, covering the News Bulletins on Wednesday, waiting for another phone call.
Footnote: the Ronald Reagan Lounge was closed in 2004 and its external signage and interior were shipped in its entirety to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California, U.S.A. where it is housed in the Air Force One Pavilion, and is now called the Ronald Reagan Pub. I contacted the Museum and was informed that the pub no longer functions as such – only snacks and bottled drinks are served there today.
(c) Joe Connolly