Moneygall braced for Obama visit

A small Irish village is getting ready for an official visit from the most powerful man in the world.

Barack Obama has already signalled his desire to come and see his ancestral home in Moneygall, Co Offaly, (population 299) and his remarkable US presidential triumph sent jubilant locals into a tailspin.

The men, women and children in this one dusty Main St, on the main Dublin-Limerick Road where major roadworks are under way, didn’t wait until the official confirmation came through from the far side of the Atlantic to begin cracking open the bottles and ordering pints of Guinness.

While supporters in Chicago, being beamed into Ollie’s Pub on satellite news channels wore pained faces of anxiety, their Irish cousins were already throwing a party like no other.

Even the Church of Ireland rector, Canon Stephen Neill, 39, was fighting for space on the small dance floor at the back of the bar – one of only two in Moneygall – well before John McCain conceded defeat.

Had he got a tip-off from the Man Above? “No, no – I’m only in sales,” he insisted.

Pummelling the floorboards next to him were The Obama Set Dancers.

The eight women who come together every week in a nearby hall to practice their traditional steps rebranded themselves earlier this year in honour of the village’s newly adopted son.

Canon Neill, of the 200-year-old Templeharry church, in the next village of Cloughjordan, was partly responsible for this outbreak of madness.

It was he who unearthed the dusty records stored in an elderly parishioner’s home that firmly tied America’s first black President to Moneygall.

“It’s electric, it’s hard to have imagined this would go up a notch but it has,” he said.

“We’re only looking forward now to the next stage in the journey which will be a visit hopefully from President Obama in the next year.

“It’s hard to contemplate really, for a quiet little village on the main Dublin to Limerick road, soon to be by-passed, to get a visit from the most important citizen of the world – it’s very hard to put words on that.”

There was no sign of a credit crunch in Ollie’s Pub or any evidence outside of the economic gloom that has pervaded the rest of the country, as it comes to terms with the dying cry of the Republic’s once mighty Celtic Tiger.

The talk was of optimism, new plans, perhaps a heritage centre on the field where Senator Obama’s third great-grandfather named Fulmuth Kearney grew up. There was also hope of change.

“This gives us that encouragement we need, particularly at a time when people are quite down about the economy. This gives us a little kick up the backside to get us motivated and moving,” said Canon O’Neill.

US Presidents have been to Ireland before. John F Kennedy was the first in 1963. Ronald Regan in 1984; Bill Clinton, who played such a pivotal role in the Northern Ireland peace process, in 1995, 1998 and 2000 and George W Bush in 2004.

But it’s Barack Obama’s anticipated arrival at some stage in the future which has really captured the imagination of this village whose ancestors left for America in the 1850s. Nothing remains of Fulmuth Kearney’s homestead or surrounding countryside, which now has housing sites known as Kearney’s Gardens

Eugene Ryan, 56, principal of St Joseph’s School, was born and bred in the village and teaches just across the street from where he grew up.

“When John F Kennedy came to Ireland in 1963 I was still at school myself, I remember it,” he said.

“His Irish connections were well publicised at the time. We all thought he was a walking saint.

“Obama certainly has a strong similarity: he’s a young man, with new ideas and he has Irish connections – and thank God, they are Moneygall connections.”

The nearest the village has come before to these scenes of jubilation was for the rare and cherished victories of the Gaelic hurling team who play in red and black. They won a county junior title last weekend.

“We’re not a huge parish so every victory is well celebrated,” said Mr Ryan, many of whose pupils had also gathered in the pub for the party.

“But this is a bigger celebration. The win on Sunday was a parish victory and we had great celebrations here, but the names and faces of people for this celebration have come from all around.

“Obama’s victory puts Moneygall on the map – on the world map.”

Evidence of that was to be found with one American, Kathleen Collins, 46, a registered Republican Party member from Philadelphia now living in Ireland, who travelled to Moneygall for the results.

She had switched allegiance to Senator Obama’s camp and wanted to herald his success in his ancestral home.

“I believe it’s time for change,” she said, echoing the next President’s winning mantra.

“It’s a great day in American history. America is a diverse country and we can prove it now by having an African-American president.”

Marian Ryan, 40, a housewife who has lived in Moneygall for 12 years and one of the Obama Set Dancers, has found further evidence of the village’s new found fame.

“I was talking to a doctor from Kilkenny on the phone yesterday and when I told him I was in Moneygall, he knew that Barack Obama’s people came from here,” she said.

“This is going to go down in history and we’re all part of that. For the first time ever I feel I’m part of the history books.”

“He’s gorgeous – very attractive,” said Anne Maher, fellow set dancer and a special needs school worker in her 40s who has lived in the village all her life.

“Everything about him, I think he appeals to everybody – young and old. Obama is part of locality now basically. We think we’re all related to him. We wish we were.”

Taoiseach Brian Cowen, also from Co Offaly, was swift to officially invite Senator Obama to Moneygall in his congratulations to him after the official result. But there is, perhaps, one man who is looking forward to it more than any other in the village.

Henry Healy (24), who keeps the accounts for a local plumber and who has traced his own family tree to the Kearney-Obama dynasty, is the acknowledged driving force of a campaign promoting the famous connection.

As he walks along the village, neighbours hoot car horns and wave to him, as he talks to visitors about this recently-uncovered heritage.

“It fantastic for our little village in the south of Offaly to be associated with the most powerful man in the world,” he said.

“You would have to go back to JFK for something like this. JFK had the charisma, the image, he was youthful, he had everything going for him, even the Irish roots, as does Barack Obama.

“It’s put Moneygall on the map. It’s put Offaly on the map. And we’re awfully proud of it too.”


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