All parties got what they wanted despite brevity of visit
The good nature and overall warmth of Obama’s one-day trip was great for Ireland, for the US and possibly for his future re-election
BOTH SIDES got what they wanted. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle manifestly had a good time. The images of smiling Irish eyes, the US leader kissing babies, meeting his cousins and downing a pint of Guinness were sure to warm Irish-American hearts.
If there was something disproportionate, it was the amount of importance attached to it; enormous for Ireland, positive but fleeting for the US. For a day, Ireland was the centre of the universe. President Mary McAleese and Taoiseach Enda Kenny were elevated to the rank of world leaders hosting the world leader. Irish spirits soared. Bord Fáilte got the best free advertising.
At Buckingham Palace today, Dublin and Moneygall will be a happy memory for Obama. For the White House, his day in Ireland was a feelgood fun-fest, a lark. US ambassador Dan Rooney, who had been pressing him to visit Ireland for years, said last month he wanted Obama to have a good time, a moment of relaxation, to steel himself for the hard work to follow.
The admiration for little Ireland “punching above its weight” as the president put it, for its courage, and the talent of its writers, was genuine. America’s friendship with Ireland has never faltered. The rest of this week – convincing other Europeans they are not unloved and neglected, and must stay the course in Afghanistan – will be more of a challenge. As Mr Obama said on St Patrick’s Day in 2010, “In recent years, it’s become cool to be Irish.” US officials look scandalised if one is so cynical as to suggest the president was in re-election mode. But yesterday’s visit might sway a vote or two, a campaign contributor, among those tens of millions of Irish Americans.
There was another, unstated advantage in reminding America Obama is also of white, European extraction. By producing his long-form birth certificate last month and disposing of Osama bin Laden, Obama put paid – at least temporarily – to the “birther” conspiracy theory. His Irish roots are another nail in that coffin.
According to a new biography of Stanley Anne Dunham, Obama’s mother felt hurt he chose to identify so completely with the African-American community, when he’d been raised by her (white) side of the family. By making the pilgrimage to Moneygall, Obama acknowledged his Caucasian roots. Obama has an almost Irish love of symbolism. Not by chance, the Irish Embassy in Washington gave US journalists a copy of the speeches made during John F Kennedy’s historic visit in June 1963.
The image of a young, handsome and popular American leader speaking to Irish crowds in thrall had resonance. Just as Kennedy boasted in New Ross of returning 115 years after his ancestors left Co Wexford, Obama has retraced the journey made by Fulmouth Kearney 166 years ago.
Every gesture seemed pregnant with meaning. Of the three Irish children who rang the Peace Bell at the Áras, one was of African origin, one a Traveller. The frame for the bell was carved from two trees, one from the North, the other from the Republic. The president shoved earth on to the roots of an Irish oak that will be moved to a permanent place near a tree planted by John F Kennedy.
Although Mr Obama didn’t make it to Glasnevin Cemetery, he paid ample homage to Daniel O’Connell and Frederick Douglass, “America’s Black O’Connell”, in his speech.
He greatly admires Douglass, who like him was 6ft 4in tall. Both had one black parent, one white, and both were abandoned by their fathers. Both revolutionised the way the US views African Americans.
A resin copy of a statue of Douglass was moved into Farmleigh for the meeting between Kenny and Obama. The sculptor, Andrew Edwards, modelled the statue’s outstretched hand after the hand of Obama. The Irish and American leaders were photographed standing beside Frederick Douglass. Don Mullan and Kristin Leary, who campaigned for Obama to commemorate Douglass on the visit, also got what they wanted.