U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama met local residents in Moneygall, Ireland, the ancestral homeland of his great-great-great grandfather, Monday, May 23, 2011. President Barack Obama opened a six-day European tour with a quick dash through Ireland, where he celebrated his own Irish roots and looked to give a boost to a nation grappling with the fallout from its financial collapse. (AP Photo, Pool)
President Barack Obama lifted a pint and raised a nation’s spirits this week in a 12-hour visit to Ireland marked by a poignant side-trip to the rural village from which his Irish ancestor set out on a journey to America.
The U.S. president, at the start of a six-day European tour, landed in Dublin and flew in a helicopter to the flyspeck town of Moneygall, a village in the center of the Irish bog-lands, where he met with fellow descendants of Falmouth Kearney, one of Obama’s great-great-great grandfathers on his mother’s side, and quaffed a pint of Guinness with his wife Michelle at his side.
Locals from County Offaly, about an hour’s drive southwest of the Irish capital, stood in the rain for hours to catch a glimpse of the president’s motorcade down Moneygall’s Main Street, bedecked with U.S. and Irish flags. They painted the commander-in-chief’s visit in rapturous terms, embracing the son of Kansas and Kenya as a full-blooded Hibernian.
“I know it’s only recently that he discovered his ancestry, but that doesn’t matter,” said John Brereton, 76, in a phone interview from his home in Daingean. “For today at least, he’s fully Irish.”
Obama didn’t pretend to artful familiarity with the science of a good pour at Ollie Hayes’s Bar in Moneygall, instead deferring to the owner who drew the pint. “You tell me when it’s properly settled,” said the president after the dark brew was drawn and the tan foam began settling on his 16-ounce glass. “I don’t want to mess this up.” He then plunked money on the bar and added, “I just want you to know the president pays.”
As Michelle sipped on Guinness from a half-pint glass, the 44th president turned to the crowd in the packed, low-ceilinged room and praised the contribution of Irish émigrés like Kearney who fled the famine to help build a new nation. “There are millions of Americans who trace their ancestry back to this beautiful island,” said Obama. “Part of what makes it so special is because the Irish influence on American culture is so powerful in the arts, in politics, in commerce.”
During his trip to Moneygall, population 350, Obama met distant relation Henry Healy, a gangly man with prominent ears, who was identified as an eighth cousin. The president’s genealogical tie to the village was first identified by the local Protestant minister, Canon Stephen Neill, who pored through birth and baptism records to discover the link between Obama and Kearney, a cobbler’s son who sailed to New York in 1850.
The Corrigan Brothers, a band from nearby Limerick, followed up on the 2007 revelation by writing a popular sing-along, “There’s No One as Irish as Barack Obama,” which became an internet sensation during the 2008 campaign. “He’s about 5 percent Irish, we reckon,” said Neill to the Associated Press. “But that’s enough. They do say there’s a bit of Irish in everyone.”
Obama’s appearance stirred memories of the first U.S. president to visit Irish soil, President John F. Kennedy, whose 1963 journey also included a stop in his ancestral county to meet family relations and a triumphant speech in Dublin. Like Kennedy’s ancestors, Obama’s Irish forebears fled famine and crushing oppression to sail to the New World.
Majella Moloney, a County Offaly native who moved to Dublin to attend Trinity College, said she was proud to see the American president visit her home county and later address thousands of Dubliners packed into the College Green at her alma mater. “Brilliant,” she said. “He was impressive, positive and upbeat. He spoke to everyone who had family and emigrated to the States. Color and country of origin weren’t an issue – it was a universal message.”
“The whole country has gone giddy with delight,” said Moloney. “In the midst of the deepest economic downturn in a while, his visit to Ireland has given us an uplift that will certainly last awhile.”
In his remarks in Dublin, Obama celebrated the bonds between the U.S. and Ireland, told the story of his ancestor’s decision to leave his homeland at age 19, and joked about his own Irish origins. “I’m Barack Obama, from the Moneygall Obamas,” he said to the crowd, “and I’ve come home to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way.”
The president poked further fun at himself in a story about trying to get a slot to march in Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day parade during his tenure in the state senate. “The problem was not many people knew me or could even pronounce my name. I told them it was a Gaelic name. They didn’t believe me,” said Obama. “So one year a few volunteers and I did make it into the parade, but we were literally the last marchers. After two hours, finally it was our turn. And while we rode the route and we smiled and waved, the city workers were right behind us cleaning up the garbage. It was a little depressing. But I’ll bet those parade organizers are watching TV today and feeling kind of bad – because this is a pretty good parade right here.”
Looking back in history, Obama cited the friendship forged between Daniel O’Connell, “The Great Liberator” who agitated for Irish civil and political rights in the 19th century, and former slave Frederick Douglass, who travelled to Ireland to meet O’Connell and later hosted a rally at Faneuil Hall where the Irish politician denounced slavery. “His time here, Frederick Douglass said, defined him not as a color but as a man. And it strengthened the non-violent campaign he would go home to wage.”
Obama’s visit, cut short by volcanic ash clouds from Iceland, forcing the president to fly to London at the close of the day’s events, followed by less than a week a state visit by Queen Elizabeth II, the first by a British monarch since before the Irish Rising of 1916. Travelling under heavy security, the queen visited a memorial to pay tribute to the heroes of Irish freedom and apologized for mistakes made in the long history of British occupation of Ireland.
“The queen’s visit was very moving,” said Moloney, “and I’m glad it went well, but it didn’t generate this kind of excitement. Everyone I know is either out in the street or glued to the telly, watching the president’s every move and listening to his every word.”
Mary Brereton, 68, said she was moved by America’s first black president saying in Gaelic to a nation suffering from growing debt and unemployment, “If feidir lin” – meaning, “We can do it” - and his good cheer greeting and hugging the people of Moneygall. “He really engaged with us,” she said. “The security people were trying to get him out, but you could tell he was really enjoying himself.”
Her husband John, a retired utility worker who fed dried peat into a furnace to generate electricity, said the visit reminded him of another African-American celebrity who came to Ireland to claim his heritage – boxer Muhammad Ali, who defeated Al “Blue” Lewis in Dublin’s Croke Park in 1972 and returned in 2007 to meet his Irish relations in County Clare. On a visit to Ennis, in the west of Ireland, Ali walked through the home of his great-grandfather, Abe Grady, and shadow-boxed with villagers on the street.
“The whole country loved Ali,” said Brereton. “The fact that he claimed Irish descent made us love him even more. Just like Obama.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.