‘Make Doonbeg great again’: Co Clare welcomes Donald Trump

Doonbeg locals Tommy Haugh and Danny Buckley prepare the village for Donald Trump's visit. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

“It’s like Italia ’90,” says Joe Pender, as he and other villagers hang bunting in the Irish colours across Doonbeg’s Main Street.

It is a week before the small west Clare village hosts its most famous landowner and investor, Donald Trump, the president of the United States. He has already visited Doonbeg, the golf resort he bought for €15 million two years before he was elected the world’s most powerful man, but never as president.

“It will put it on the map. There are not too many celebrities that come to Doonbeg,” says Pender.

Pender says he can see the many US secret service agents at the seaside resort from his home, preparing for the arrival of the property tycoon-turned-president. Pender lives next door to the resort.

“I fed cattle on it before Donald Trump made a golf course out of it. My brother sold the 120 acres where the golf course is now. I know every inch of it and I worked there for 17 years,” he says.

“It is probably making more money as a golf course.”

Tommy Tubridy emerges from his pub with a bundle of Stars and Stripes flags under his arm. He, like the others in the village, hopes Trump drops down from his resort, a 10-minute drive away, during his visit.

Publican Tommy Tubridy helps to put up stars and stripes bunting to festoon the streets of Doonbeg village with US colours ahead of a visit by US President Donald Trump to his golf course in the County Clare village of Doonbeg, Ireland. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
Doonbeg publican Tommy Tubridy with Stars and Stripes bunting. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

The US president is expected to arrive in Doonbeg on Wednesday early evening after meeting Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Shannon Airport following his arrival from the UK where he is on a three-day state visit.

He is expected to take a day trip to France for the D-Day commemorations on Thursday, before returning that night and playing a round of golf on the Friday, then flying back to the US on Air Force One.

Tubridy is ready if Trump, a non-drinker, shows up. “We have nice spring water here in Doonbeg. It should be lovely,” he says.

Standing near a cherry picker erected with a temporary security CCTV camera overlooking the village, the former Clare footballer says he has “no problem” if anti-Trump protesters descend on his village.

Tommy Haugh carries a US flag to festoon the streets of Doonbeg village ahead of a visit by US President Donald Trump to his golf course in the County Clare village of Doonbeg, Ireland. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
Tommy Haugh carries a US flag to festoon the streets of Doonbeg. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

“Politics, I don’t get into it. I am all about creating jobs and employment in our area, and this is a man who has brought big industry to our area. It is all about creating jobs, providing bread and butter for the table and paying mortgages,” he says, referring to the 300 people employed by the Trump Organisation at Doonbeg.

The Government was criticised for rolling out the red carpet for Trump at Shannon when he arrived in 2014 to inspect his newly acquired property. Then Minister for Finance Michael Noonan defended being in the welcome party for Trump on the edge of the carpet next to a harpist, singer and violinist, questioning whether there would be similar criticism if it was a factory backed with State grants.

Five years on, the situation is very different. Trump’s stance on immigration, his misogyny, his description of white supremacists as “very fine people” – among other contentious policies and remarks – have left many in Ireland feeling deeply uneasy about the red carpet being rolled out again.

“What did he say about them? I don’t read everything,” says Ita Comerford when asked by The Irish Times about she thought of the controversial remarks Trump had made about women.

It is a green shoot that this small village is being offered. It is our only chance of survival, and we are very grateful

Wearing garden gloves and a high-vis vest, she is one of a group of women from Doonbeg’s Tidy Town Committee busy planting flowers and cleaning up and down Main Street.

“He said, before he was a candidate, that he would grab women by their private parts? That didn’t sit well with a lot of people,” this reporter tells Comerford.

“Of course it didn’t yeah, but it’s just because I’m a woman you’re saying that to me . . . It is like people who protest; they are entitled to, but we are also entitled to welcome him.”

Many US presidents have visited different parts of Ireland and were welcomed, she suggests.

“They’ve all done things that maybe people weren’t proud of,” she says.

The women helping Comerford all believe Trump will help the village.

“Make Doonbeg great again. We are going to be repeating his words,” says one.

“It is good PR. You couldn’t buy this publicity,” says Comerford’s brother Tommy.

Tommy, another pub owner in Doonbeg, says the people of the village overlook Trump’s politics and are only interested in the jobs, investment and economic benefit he brings.

“We don’t feel confident that we should speak on other political issues. We stay away from that,” he says.

A local man mows the grass to tidy up Doonbeg village ahead of a visit by US President Donald Trump to his nearby golf course in the County Clare village of Doonbeg, Ireland. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
A local man mows the grass to tidy up Doonbeg village. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Comerford respects the right of people to protest but cannot understand why they would demonstrate over this because it is a private visit. He hopes protesters “behave themselves”.

“He is just coming to relax, play a game of golf and, as a visiting dignitary, we respect him,” he says.

Some 62 per cent of visitors to Doonbeg are American, and several locals point out the importance of being respectful to the US president, regardless of who holds the office.

James Griffin, another Doonbeg resident strolling along Main Street, is one of the local club members of Trump International Golf Links and Hotel Ireland, as Trump’s business is officially called.

“People divorce Donald Trump the owner of the golf course from his politics. People have their own ideas about his policies. The big thing here are the jobs he supports,” he says.

A few doors down, Hugh McNally, owner of Morrissey’s pub, relies heavily on regular business from the visiting golfers shuttled down from Trump’s resort who want to mix with locals in a local.

Hugh McNally: ‘It is a green shoot that this small village is being offered... It is our only chance of survival and we are very grateful.’ Photograph: Enda O’Dowdd
Hugh McNally. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd

McNally says the development of the course by the original Irish-American partners was the reason he took over his family’s pub in 2002 and borrowed €1 million to refurbish it at the age of just 22.

He admits to having had a few difficult years, but Trump Organisation’s financial commitment to the area has helped him and others living in west Clare. He expresses frustration that more people in Ireland cannot see beyond Trump’s policies to praise him for supporting a part of rural Ireland starved of investment.

“It is a green shoot that this small village is being offered that you don’t see any other village in rural Ireland being offered. It is our only chance of survival and we are very grateful,” he says.

McNally, who is a distant cousin of Trump’s vice president Mike Pence, is “very disappointed” the Taoiseach is not meeting Trump in Doonbeg.

“If it was an Intel or an Apple that was coming, how many leaders of the country have opened up those plants? I don’t see what the difference is,” he says.

The Taoiseach and public cannot separate Trump International from President Trump. We can. We do not agree with many of his policies, on immigration, on how he treats women, but we still support his investment in the area

McNally believes that planning changes should be introduced to facilitate Mr Trump’s €10 million plan to save Doonbeg from further coastal erosion and sign off on his planned €38 million investment in a ballroom, leisure centre and additional housing that will roughly double the size of Trump’s resort.

He sees Doonbeg as a “piece of strategic infrastructure” for the area.

“The golf course to us is akin to the whole technology sector in Dublin. There are 300 people in Doonbeg, that is worth is about 10,000 jobs in Dublin,” says McNally, offering a lower estimate that his neighbour.

The investment would give McNally and the village of Doonbeg another “Trump bump”.

“They just want to move it to the next level,” he says.

Rita McInerney, a Fianna Fáil general election candidate who runs a shop closer to the resort, claims Doonbeg is being “penalised” by not receiving approval for Trump’s coastal protection plan “because of the name associated with it.” She criticises Varadkar and the wider Irish public for not being more supportive.

Rita McInerney a Fianna Fáil general election candidate who runs a shop closer to the resort, claims Doonbeg is being ‘penalised’ by not receiving approval for Trump’s coastal protection plan ‘because of the name associated with it.’ Photograph: Enda O’Dowd
Rita McInerney. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd

“The Taoiseach and public in general cannot separate Trump International from President Trump. We can. We do not agree with many of his policies, on immigration, on how he treats women, but we still support his investment in the area,” she says.

McInerney dismisses questions that were asked in the US Congress in 2018 about whether Russian mafia money may have been used by Trump’s family business to finance the purchase of Doonbeg. An investigator queried the heavy amounts of capital flowing into a project that was not making money.

That issue “passed over people’s radars here,” says McInerney. She points out that the resort is “well audited” and its financial figures are “well documented” in public filings. Figures for the TIGL Ireland Enterprises, the company behind the resort, show it sustained a loss of €1.8 million on sales of €10.6 million.

“There was Russian television station that visited at one stage last year,” says McInerney. “It was like a junket for them. They did a bit of filming as well but it was more of a team bonding thing.”

Publican Tommy Comerford rejects any Russian connection to Doonbeg as “one of those false media rumours” – almost but not quite using Trump’s favourite two-word putdown of media.

Up at Trump’s resort, the area is abuzz with activity. The Irish Times is stopped twice by gardaí on the way in. On the third occasion, plain clothes detectives check our IDs because they are, they say, in the middle of “an operation.”

Technicians and staff preparing for the visit are busy working around golfers and guests. An advance team from the White House has just visited to prepare for the arrival of an 600-strong entourage.

Joe Russell, general manager of Trump Doonbeg, will not be drawn out on the many stories in circulation in recent days, from protective snipers in the dunes to a US nuclear submarine being moored in the bay.

“For those not in the know, the tales do grow longer as people talk,” says Russell, sitting in one of the luxury suites that offers panoramic views of Doughmore beach.

Joe Russell would have liked to have welcomed the Taoiseach to Doonbeg along with Trump but understands why the Government has chosen Shannon as the location for their meeting. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd
Joe Russell. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd

It is a suite similar to the one President Trump and the first lady Melania will spend two nights in.

“Make no mistake about it – it is going to be a significant security presence around here, probably the safest place in Ireland on those few days,” says Russell

In economic terms, he estimates the resort “dropped” about €8 million into the local economy in 2018 in term of pay and generating business locally. This is “not a small number,” he says, when there is not many other big employers nearby.

There is Lahinch, a more populated tourism spot, to the north and, to the south, ESB’s Moneypoint coal-burning power station, which employs 200 people and has an uncertain future.

Doonbeg had “a couple of rough years with the recession,” says Russell, but the arrival of someone with resources and an interest in golf, as Trump has, has been “phenomenal” in sustaining Doonbeg’s future.

He concedes he would have liked to have welcomed the Taoiseach to Doonbeg along with Trump but understands why the Government has chosen Shannon as the location for their meeting.

“There are probably sensitivities in that regard which the Government need to consider,” he says.

It is likely, says Russell, that Trump’s round, expected on Friday, will involve a third game in an ongoing series pitting Trump and Russell against Doonbeg’s resident golf pro and membership director.

The two games we played with him were two cracking games, and there was none of that nonsense that you have described with the mulligans – it doesn’t happen

“His short game is fantastic,” says Russell who cannot name any weakness in his boss’s game. Trump has a handicap of five or six, he says, but this is tested by the Irish weather.

“He shot late 70s the first day he played here.”

Russell dismisses claims that Trump has a habit of seeking free replays, or “mulligans.”

“The two games we played with him were two cracking games and there was none of that nonsense that you have described with the mulligans – it doesn’t happen,” he says.

He expects the images of Doonbeg being beamed around the world during Trump’s visit to be invaluable in marketing terms, not just to the resort but to Co Clare and Ireland.

“That would cost millions to have that same level of exposure around the world,” he says. “I am delighted to have it. I hope County Clare is delighted to have it.”

Not everyone is thrilled.

A 20-minute drive up the coast, newly elected Green Party Clare County Councillor Roisin Garvey will join the planned protest at Trump’s visit in Ennis next Friday afternoon. She thinks the town is a good location because she does not want the people of west Clare to see the protest as being against them.

Roisin Garvey: ‘It is about him being a climate change denier, a misogynist, a racist. That’s what the protest is about.’ Photograph: Enda O’Dowd
Roisin Garvey. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd

“We do not need people in Clare fighting with each other because some of them have jobs in west Clare and some of them hate Trump as a man,” she says.

“It is about him being a climate change denier, a misogynist, a racist. That’s what the protest is about. It is not about him creating jobs in west Clare,” adds Garvey who also participated in a protest against President George W Bush when he visited the county in 2004.

Next week, there will be two very different types of banner being flown in the Banner County for another visiting US president.