Irish village embraces Obama as its own

The president's trip to Ireland is seen as a symbol of US-Irish solidarity in hard economic times, but his stop in tiny Moneygall, where his Irish ancestors lived, has been a cause for celebration among residents.

AP Photo
President Barack Obama, left, reacts after he was presented with a hurley stick from Irish Prime Minister and Taoiseach Enda Kenny while in Farmleigh, Dublin, May 23. Obama said Monday that the U.S. and Ireland share a "blood link" that extends beyond strategic interests or foreign policy into the hearts of the millions of Irish Americans who still see a homeland here.

The Birther movement may have been trying to prove President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, but perhaps they should have argued he was born in Ireland. Many here are more than happy to claim him as Irish as he makes his first state visit to the country.

Hot on the heels of last week's state visit by British Queen Elizabeth, President Obama arrived in Ireland today and Obamamania is already in full swing. He met this morning with Irish president Mary McAleese about peace in northern Ireland and with Prime Minister Enda Kenny about economic policy, but as far as most Irish are concerned, the visit is really about his public appearances, when he addresses a celebration in Dublin and makes a trip to rural Ireland.

The small County Offaly village of Moneygall is home to just under 300 people, including distant relatives to Barack Obama. The town's main street is decked out with both American and Irish flags, the houses and shops are freshly painted, and not a pothole can be found.

Moneygall resident Mary Ryan says residents are delighted to get a chance to see the most powerful man in the world.

“It’s fantastic for the village. There’s a great buzz around the place and a great community spirit. Everybody’s out helping to prepare,” she says.

Solidarity in dark times

Outside Moneygall, the fact that the US president is willing to come to Ireland is being viewed as an important gesture of friendship by those living in a battered nation.

“I think we’re going through a massive identity crisis after the economic crash and Catholic church abuse scandals, asking ‘are we a failed state?’” says Lindsey Earner-Byrne, a historian at University College Dublin.

Despite being merely a whistle-stop tour that lasts just 24 hours, Obama’s visit to his distant ancestors’ homeland of County Offaly and to Dublin is being greeted with significant enthusiasm. It stands in sharp contrast to last week's visit by the British queen, which, while highlighting the improved relations between Ireland and Britain, was a muted affair.

The brief US presidential visit is being seen as a show of solidarity in dark times.

“It’s a much less complicated relationship [but] it’s also a case of knowing we have friends,” says Dr. Earner Byrne. “Who [else] wants to be associated with Ireland at the moment?”

Claiming US presidents as Irish has been par for the course since the era of President John F. Kennedy. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton enjoyed warm welcomes – particularly Mr. Clinton, who is revered for his role in the Northern Ireland peace process.

President George W. Bush received a more ambivalent reception during his 2004 visit, which came amid protests and grievances about the Irish government's decision to allow US military aircraft to refuel in Shannon during the Iraq war, despite the country's neutral stance in the conflict.

Interest abounds in Obama, both as an individual and as US head of state. While some small protests are planned in Dublin by socialist groups opposed to US foreign policy, Obama’s presidency has been much more popular in Ireland than that of his predecessor. Earner-Byrne says the Irish see Obama as a historically significant figure.

“I remember sitting with my daughter watching Obama’s inauguration and it was really quite amazing. I suspect most Irish people will respond to his visit on that level rather than his US policies – few people here could understand how the difficulties he had with his healthcare bill, for instance.”

David Cochrane, who runs the Irish political web forum, says that although Obamamania is in full swing, he considers Queen Elizabeth's trip to Ireland more politically significant.

“Personally I’m more ambivalent about Obama’s visit than the Queen’s. Obama is almost just going to step off onto the tarmac and back onto the plane, whereas the queen was here almost for a holiday,” he says.

'A bit of fun'

Back in Moneygall, a village many Irish had never heard of until Obama’s Irish lineage was uncovered, the local economy is enjoying a red, white, and blue bubble.

Three thousand tickets to the public reception have been issued, with locals hoping everyone in the wider area will be able to attend.

Unlike the Queen’s somber visits to memorials to the dead, the US president is being greeted with a sense of fun – mixed with slightly bizarre commercialism.

Bookmaker chain Paddy Power is taking bets on which of Moneygall's two pubs Obama will visit and is also giving a free bet to any US passport holder who comes into one of its shops, says Ken Robertson, the firm’s head of communications. It has rebranded thirteen of its shopfronts as “Obama Power” – gambling being much less controversial in Ireland than the US.

“It’s a bit of fun,” Mr. Robertson says. “The average bet size is €5 to €20.”

An Obama tourism bump?

Billy Hayes, who owns a t-shirt printing business and whose family also owns Moneygall's two pubs, has opened a temporary shop selling Obama shirts and says the visit has created a mini economic boom in the village.

“A couple of secret service agents bought shirts and then we suddenly had 300 sales to the US embassy in Dublin,” he says.

A short-term boost is hardly surprising, but hopes are high for a sustained benefit.

John Donovan, who owns the ancestral home of Obama’s Donovan relatives although is not himself related, says local expectations are realistic. “Any time a president comes to Ireland, it can’t do any harm. In the longer term, we have four or five [Obama related] things [in the village] that might make us a half-hour stop for coach tours.”

Dennis Duggan, who works with the government-run economic development agency Shannon Development, says the visit will help reignite Ireland’s tourism industry, which has been in the doldrums because of the economic crash and a widespread sense that the country was too expensive, offering visitors poor value for their money.

“There definitely will be a medium-term boost [locally] – you can see it already. In the longer term the entire country will benefit as a result of tourism,” he says.

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