A message of friendship and hope

 

IT SEEMED providential, the way the clouds blew away, clearing a bright-blue patch over College Green, just moments before President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrived.

“O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma,” chanted the reserved area crowd, estimated at about 30,000. Not only the US president, but also Taoiseach Enda Kenny, proved formidable orators, touching deep chords of emotion.

“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that Ireland is a place where all things are possible, who still questions our capacity to restore ourselves, to reinvent ourselves, today is your answer,” the Taoiseach started. “Because today, on this day, the president of the United States of America, Barack Obama, and his first lady, Michelle Obama, have come to see us.” The Obamas walked out from the graceful colonnade, hand in hand, their clothes fluttering in the breeze, smiling and as beautiful and fresh as on the night of his election.

“Falmouth Kearney never imagined that one day his great-great-great grandson would return as president of the United States,” Mr Kenny said.

Michelle Obama had tears in her eyes. The president appeared to work hard to control his emotion. For 23 minutes, the American leader moved seamlessly from humour to gravitas, from laugh-provoking jokes to profound words of encouragement. “Hello Dublin! Hello Ireland! My name is Barack Obama, of the Moneygall Obamas,” he began, to applause.

The president expressed condolences on the death of former taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, “someone who believed in the power of education . . . in the potential of youth, most of all, someone who believed in the potential of peace”. He joked about his 100,000 welcomes, about feeling well after his pint of Guinness. He conveyed “the hearty greetings of tens of millions of Irish Americans who proudly trace their heritage to this small island”. People had raked through his past, checked his place of birth, but out of it had come this blessing: Barack Obama learned he was Irish. He repeated the joke he tells every St Patrick’s Day, about how useful it would have been politically had he known back in Chicago.

Then the president struck his core message, that the friendship between the US and Ireland “is a proud, enduring, centuries-old relationship; that we are bound by history and friendship and shared values”. He recounted the visit to Moneygall, the ancestral home and the local pub, his “long-lost eighth cousin, Henry”, who will henceforward be known as “Henry VIII”. Mr Obama shifted into the poignant tale of “a young shoemaker named Falmouth Kearney, my great-great-great grandfather, my grandfather’s grandfather” whose heartbreak he imagined as Kearney watched the coast of Donegal and the Dingle cliffs receding.

The story of his Irish ancestor was “one lived and cherished by Americans of all backgrounds . . . the American Dream”. Mr Obama listed Ireland’s great contributions to America, to its revolutionary war, the war of secession, building its cities and political system. “Never has a nation so small inspired so much in another,” he said.

He drew some of the loudest applause when he praised “our first Irish president – our first Catholic president, John F Kennedy . . . made us dream again”. He was applauded when he praised the Irish for making peace in the North. “You, the Irish people, persevered. And you cast your votes and you made your voices heard for that peace . . . And America will stand by you – always.” The recession was a trial for both countries, but both would prevail. “This little country, that inspires the biggest things – your best days are still ahead,” he concluded. “Our greatest triumphs – in America and Ireland alike – are still to come.” If naysayers tried to discourage them, he told his audience, “just respond with a simple creed: Is féidir linn. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.”