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Folk, fables and foibles the guidebook forgot to mention
  • Fergus Manor

3. The Che connection...

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

Down the years, visitors to Kilkee have been bemused by a mural on the sea wall depicting the unmistakeable and iconic head-shot of Che Guevara.

Versions of the mural have come and gone but the most controversial event took place in 2013 when American tourists complained and Clare County Council removed it, citing local regulations. In all likelihood the offended tourists had left Ireland by then and, in any case, they were probably unaware that Che Guevara never had anything to do with America but everything to do with Kilkee. Although he had Irish ancestry—most notably through his father, Ernesto Guevara Lynch, whose family roots were in County Galway—it is in Clare, and particularly Kilkee, where he is best remembered. Kilkee’s iconic image of Che was the work of Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick who created it from a photo taken by Alberto Korda and, coincidentally, it is Fitzpatrick’s story of how, in the summer of 1962, he served Guevara and his two minders when, stranded in fog-bound Shannon, they ended up in the bar of Kilkee’s Marine Hotel where Jim was working. The story seemed straightforward enough: flights between Havana and Moscow routinely refuelled at Shannon Airport and when, in September 1961, the airport become fog-bound after the plane landed, passengers had to be accommodated in the area for a day or two. That, I thought, was that. You will probably already have noticed a discrepancy in the above dates. Fitspatrick’s story (which appeared in the prestigious journal Irish History) is vague about the time of year other than ‘the summer of 1962’ and he only mentions one Kilkee location, the Marina Hotel. At the other end of Kilkee was the Strand Hotel where a similar story emerged about Che staying overnight on 12 September 1961 and how he signed the Register as Rafael Trujillo, the name of the Dominican dictator who had been assassinated that May. Taking these dates at face value might suggest that the infamous revolutionary and his two minders turning up twice in Kilkee in consecutive years, staying overnight at the Strand one year and returning for an Irish whiskey at the Marine the next.  The Strand’s Register of guests for 1961 seemingly confirms this version of events and is supported by the fact that, two days earlier, there was a major plane crash at Shannon which was in part caused by poor weather conditions and which closed the airport for a time. But it does seem odd that, in no account of the Che story, is there any mention of the events at Shannon. You would think that a major incident that killed 83 people, literally just down the road, would have been the subject of intense local conversation and speculation just two days later. Perhaps Jim Fitzpatrick just got the year wrong and the simple explanation is that it was indeed 12 September 1961 (technically still ‘summer’) when he served Che Guevara at the Marine before Che stayed overnight at the Strand. Though it’s odd that the terrible events at Shannon two days earlier didn’t act as a spur to his memory.  It’s conceivable that Che Guevara was fog-bound at Shannon on two consecutive years, September 1961 and summer 1962. Bad luck you might think but then, according to the Limerick Leader, it happened again in March 1965 when his flight developed a fault and he had another forced stopover at Shannon. On this occasion he stayed at Limerick’s Hanratty’s Hotel where he got sucked in to their pre-St Patrick’s Day revels. Although a local journalist was there that night, his cameraman wasn’t and, just as at the Marine and the Strand, nobody thought of nipping home for a camera.  Could there be a simpler, Poirot-esque explanation—admittedly a bit far-fetched and tongue-in-cheek­—for all these encounters with Che Guevara? One that explains all three? Locals recall that, back in the early 60s, Limerick-born actor Richard Harris was a frequent visitor to Kilkee and not only did Harris have access to wigs and greasepaint but he also had a reputation for outlandish and off-the-wall behaviour … 

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