'I told Obama, you gotta go to Ireland. He said, I will'


INTERVIEW:US ambassador Dan Rooney is playing a key role in shaping Barack Obama’s trip to Ireland

WHEN AIR Force One touches down in Dublin next month, a frail but sprightly gentleman nearing his 80th birthday will be on the tarmac to greet President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

For US ambassador Dan Rooney, that moment will rank right up there with his Pittsburgh Steelers winning the Super Bowl.

The first time Rooney met Obama (then running as a candidate) was in Pittsburgh in September 2007: “I told him, ‘You gotta go to Ireland.’ He said, ‘I will, and I’ll go with you.’”

Rooney told Obama that “Ireland is a wonderful place. It’s sort of mystic. The people are really friendly and go out of the way to be helpful and kind.”

Rooney used his prestige as the owner of the Steelers to win over crucial working-class areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia for Obama’s election. He arrived in Dublin, as the ambassador of a grateful president, on July 2nd, 2009, with two goals: to visit every county in Ireland, and to welcome a presidential visit.

Obama “is a friend, in addition to being the president”, Rooney explains. “I want him to have a good time . . . enjoy himself. He’s got a hard trip following.”

Moneygall, the home of Obama’s maternal ancestors, will be the highlight of the trip, Rooney says: “He told me he wanted to go to Moneygall four times, over a period of two years. That’s the prime destination.”

A pre-advance team from the White House visited earlier this month and the ambassador has made two trips.

So far, the small town in Co Offaly is the only confirmed destination for the presidential visit. In Moneygall, Obama will meet his eighth cousin, Henry Healy, and visit Ollie Hayes’s pub “ . . . if he can get through the crowd”, Rooney says.

Lest there be any doubt about the authenticity of Obama’s relations, Canon Stephen Neill of the Church of Ireland has the records.

Rooney was eager to debunk reports emanating from the White House that the Obamas might spend as little as five hours in Ireland.

“I don’t think that was ever the case,” he says. In his gentle, diplomatic way, the ambassador protested: “I conveyed our thoughts that that wouldn’t work,” he says.

The Taoiseach’s office invited the Obamas to arrive in Ireland on Sunday, May 22nd, which could mean a two-night stay before they move on to London, but a May 23rd arrival is probably more realistic. Plans for the presidential visit may not be finalised until a day or two beforehand. “The earlier the better,” says Rooney – the sooner the Obamas arrive, the longer they’ll stay.

The US president and first lady are expected to reside with the Rooneys in the ambassador’s residence in the Phoenix Park. On Saint Patrick’s Day in 2010, Rooney recalls, Obama said, “Yes, I am coming to Ireland, and I’m staying at hishouse.”

As the ambassador notes, it already has very good security. Built in 1776 by a British colonel, the ambassador’s home is rented from the Irish Government for a symbolic one dollar each year. Presidents Kennedy, Clinton and George Bush snr have slept in the presidential suite, as well as Princess Grace and Bing Crosby.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny would like Obama to speak to tens of thousands of young people in Croke Park, where Rooney’s Steelers played in the mid-1990s. Its size and association with the GAA make it the most likely venue for a public address.

A visit to Co Mayo is a priority for the Taoiseach and for Patricia Rooney, the ambassador’s wife, whose parents emigrated from there.

“The schedule being so tight, I don’t know that that will happen,” Rooney said. “But it’s something that the Taoiseach and my wife really want.”

If Messers Kenny and Obama fit in a game of golf, it will probably be in Mayo. “They’d really like to play,” says Rooney. “They’re similar in handicap.”

The ambassador believes the visit will make a strong impression on tens of millions of Irish-Americans. “They’ll say, ‘Gee – he’s gone to Ireland. Our immigrants – mother and father, grandfathers – that’s where they came from. It’s nice for him to be going back’.”

Dan and Patricia Rooney embody the bonds between the two countries. His grandfather, Daniel Michael Rooney, went from Newry to Montreal, Ohio and Pittsburgh, where the ambassador was born.

“There was always the feeling of Irishness,” he says. “The people I knew in Pittsburgh were predominantly Irish.”

In Dublin, Rooney maintains his Pittsburgh habits. He attends Mass every morning, and watches Steelers matches on a Slingbox media device. “I miss the games. I miss talking to the players often,” he says.

More than 100 staff at the US embassy in Ballsbridge are a substitute team. Rooney is a grandfatherly figure, stopping to greet secretaries and telephone operators by name, eating in the canteen with his employees.

The ambassador loves his life in Ireland, but as Obama’s unconditional fan, he’s thinking of returning to the US soon.

“I would probably have to resign to campaign for President Obama’s re-election,” Rooney says. “I think that would be the number one thing I can do for him, and I’d be willing to do so. He’s the best man for the job, without question.”

LARA MARLOWEis The Irish TimesWashington Correspondent