A bodyguard to US President John F Kennedy and Lord Mountbatten has recalled the shock and sadness he felt when he heard about their assassinations.
Mick McElkenny, 86, from the Washing Bay near Coalisland in Co Tyrone, trained as a sniper in the Irish Army and was a member of the Garda before he was selected to protect high-profile visitors to Ireland including Pope John Paul II.
Mr McElkenny, whose career is the subject of a documentary, said he is in the “unusual” position of having provided security to two prominent figures who went on to be murdered, highlighting just how dangerous the job is.
He was a bodyguard to JFK during the president’s visit to Ireland in 1963, just months before he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
“We had a wonderful time guarding the president. He was a very humorous person, and everybody adored him, and they all listened to his speeches. He was lovely to listen to,” Mr McElkenny said.
Remembering his glee at being chosen for such an important role, he said: “It was a great lift for me. I was delighted. And the people that all came out that time, it was unbelievable.”
Mr McElkenny recalled a story JFK told about how life could have taken a very different path if his Irish ancestors had not set sail for America.
“He told one about if his grandfather hadn’t left New Ross in Co Wexford that he would have been working over in the factory in New Ross,” he laughed.
Mr McElkenny was driving through Stewartstown, a village in Co Tyrone near his former home, when he heard the news of JFK’s assassination.
He pointed out that JFK’s driver on the day he was shot was a man from Stewartstown, and said: “Isn’t that a coincidence?”
Recalling that moment 55 years ago, he said: “I was driving through Stewartstown, which is four miles from here, and I had the radio on and there was a newsflash that John F was shot.
“Well I thought then that it wasn’t too serious, till later on the news came that he was dead…
“Very painful, very painful, to know that I was in his company a few months ago before that.
“The whole world was shocked, especially in Ireland anyway. Everybody that came out to see him felt the same way I suppose.”
He added: “When you’re doing bodyguard you don’t want anything to happen. You have to give your life should it be for his safety. And it was unfortunate that it did happen.
“And I’m thinking of his bodyguards then. Very, very sad.”
He added: “If anybody has the notion or the desire to do these things it’s hard to stop them.”
Mr McElkenny said he feels lucky to have been chosen to guard “three top people” during his working life.
“I did a lot of security work,” he said, recalling his assignment protecting the Pope during the pontiff’s trip to Ireland in 1979, and his role as part of Lord Mountbatten’s security in the picturesque Irish harbour village of Mullaghmore in Co Sligo.
The Pope survived an assassination attempt in 1981.
Lord Mountbatten, who enjoyed summer holidays for decades at nearby Classiebawn Castle, was killed in an IRA bomb on board the pleasure boat Shadow V after he set out from the harbour along the Atlantic coast to pick lobster pots and fish in 1979.
The beloved great uncle of the Prince of Wales was “very friendly” and well-liked by locals, Mr McElkenny said, as he described guarding the entrances to the castle.
“We would be up at night and all day long. He had to get 24-hour security. So we would be up there and Lord Mountbatten would be in the house and they would have friends coming in,” he said, adding that Lord Mountbatten would come out for a chat.
Mr McElkenny said Lord Mountbatten, who Charles described as “the grandfather I never had” was very fond of Mullaghmore, adding: “All the people were very fond of him. Because he was a great asset to the community.”
Of Lord Mountbatten’s murder, Mr McElkenny said: “It gives you a shock when you hear that news, that he’s dead.”
Mr McElkenny said his army marksman training gave him the skills for his bodyguard roles.
“They pick the best to guard him, to do his security,” he said, adding: “They must have thought I was a sharp shooter when I was asked to do this protection.”
He added: “It’s dangerous, because you could be shot yourself.”
Asked what he would like to be remembered for, Mr McElkenny said: “That I did a good and faithful job, and I did my best, I didn’t shy away from anything.
“I did it to the best of my ability.”
Filmmaker Ryan Coney, 27, from Coalisland, made a documentary about Mr McElkenny called The President’s Bodyguard which was screened at the 2018 Belfast Film Festival and later for locals at the Craic Theatre in Coalisland.
Mr Coney said: “I have nothing but complete respect and awe for Mick, he is the finest example of what is meant by real masculinity.
“I spoke to lots of people while filming this documentary, from all walks of Mick’s life, they spoke in glowing terms about Mick.
“Two things that people noted to me recurred time and again, were Mick’s humour and his ability to stay cool no matter what the situation.”
Mr McElkenny lives with his wife Kathleen in the area of the Glenshane Pass and has three daughters and five grandchildren.