Locals savour every minute of American dream

 

NO MATTER how short his stay in his ancestral Offaly home, Barack Obama’s certain to get the mother of all welcomes.

Looking better after a makeover courtesy of Offaly County Council, this outpost of the Faithful County is surrounded on three sides by Co Tipperary.

If, weather-permitting, Obama choppers into St Flannan’s GAA pitch, home to Moneygall hurlers, as expected, he will in fact be landing in Tipperary.

But Moneygall has put aside any divided county loyalties it may have with the entire village of 350 souls uniting in a welcoming feelgood vibe for the 44th president of the United States, whose connection with the small Offaly village comes via his third great grandfather, Fulmouth Kearney.

Among those soaking up the anticipation in Moneygall yesterday was American genealogist Megan Smolenyak who began researching Obama’s roots in 2007. She found he was part-Irish and traced his antecedents to this small village.

“I first came last summer to meet folks and get the tour that everybody’s getting now and when I heard about this, I had to come back – I couldn’t miss a celebration like this,” said Smolenyak, a native of Haddonfield, New Jersey, who is travelling with her sister Stacy.

Chatting with Smolenyak was Obama’s eighth cousin Henry Healy who, laughing off suggestions that he has the same ears as the president, revealed that he had been invited by local priest Fr Joe Kennedy to speak at Mass yesterday where he thanked everyone who had helped getting the village ready for the visit.

“We’re down to the final hours now but the build-up has been brilliant – I’ve never seen anything like this happen to the village before,” said Healy before moving off for a photograph with Nigerian-born Dubliners Michael and Shola Odor and their children, Chi Chi (7) and Chike (2) and Michael’s brother, Ifeanyi, who lives in Minnesota.

With flagpoles lining both sides of the street every 15 yards or so and stars and stripes rippling in the wind alongside Tricolours, much of the speculation was about the weather and whether the forecast strong winds might force the president to abandon his helicopter for road travel.

Publican Julia Hayes turned 80 on May 5th and thanks to Obama’s visit has deferred plans to retire on becoming an octogenarian.

“How could I retire with the US president coming here – I’ve been praying for fine weather but my prayers mightn’t be heard – when you’re behind a bar, I speak every language,” she joked.

Down at an Siopa Beag, Aidan Fanning is reporting a busy trade. “The American flags and the Moneygall mugs with the presidential visit on them are selling very well as are the Obama hats, and the Moneygall magnets are going by the bucketload – we’ve been going from nine in the morning to nine at night the last few days.”

Publican Ollie Hayes was racing around his bar, thrilled at the impending visit even though he admitted the village has no idea how long the president will stay.

“We’ve no idea but the amount of planning that has gone into this is astronomical.

“The thing now is to pick up and run with this long term – but not at the same pace.”

Church of Ireland rector Canon Stephen Neill revealed that the 3,000 guests would not be wearing any Obama masks out of respect for the office.

“Actually the merchandise that has been produced has been quite tasteful, it’s not over the top or tacky – there are no leprechauns.

“I always thought the visit was going to happen but maybe not so soon – I thought maybe next year but deep down I believed it would happen.

“Ideally we would like him to stay longer but we appreciate he’s a busy man and for a village the size of Moneygall, for however long he stays is a huge honour.”