Hours of waiting a distant memory in presence of hero


A man muttered wearily about the ‘Paddywhackery’. ‘Oh give us a break, he’s feckin’ beautiful,’ retorted his wife

NOTHING QUITE prepares a person for the sight of the President of the United States wandering so close. Or the impish look in his eye as he gladhands his way through the wheelchair enclosure and coolly takes the phone from Jessica Walls to say “Hi” to her mother Glynis, minding her business in her Skerries kitchen, cooking spaghetti Bolognese. No point in pretending to be objective.

Just surrender and swoon. “I was 10 yards from him”, crooned Liz O’Donnell. And? “What a beautiful man. He’s gorgeous, he walks like a Kenyan – they have such elegant body movement. . . ”

Psychologist Maureen Gaffney raised the tone just a tad by quoting Edmund Burke. “Obama is a natural aristocrat. He is emotionally pitch perfect. Burke called it the natural aristocracy – people of unbelievable vigour, zest and character. . . ”

Suddenly the interminable hours of standing and waiting and – for some of us, a shambolic series of confused and confusing US security demands – were a distant memory. The news that two floors of the Burlington were taken up with US secret service folk and their dogs was no surprise. They were tripping over each other around the city.

“Ah, it’s a bit like childbirth”, sang a middle-aged Clare woman, “you forget all the pain when you get this – God, I don’t know – this MIRACLE put in front of you”.

She wasn’t talking about Enda Kenny. But as a lawyer muttered sagely, “following Jedward is no small thing . . .”

Voice hoarsely reminiscent of campaigning from the back of a lorry circa 1975, the Taoiseach roared words that appealed to the spirit of hope and optimism. “If there’s anyone out there who still doubts that Ireland is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our ancestors is alive in our time; who still questions our capacity to restore ourselves, reinvent ourselves and prosper . . . Today is your answer. . . ”

The crowd loved it – mostly. About five minutes into the speech, as he was mentioning how “the Irish harp glittered above the heart of the English Queen” and how we have the kind of wealth “that can never be accumulated in banks or by measured by the markets”, the crowd began to chant “Obama!” A man close by muttered: “He should have stopped about two minutes ago.”

In essence he was speaking the same inspirational language as Obama would minutes later – except that Obama was the man the crowd had come to hear. This, as a man told his small daughter,   is “what you’ll be telling your grandchildren about. . . that you saw Barack Obama with your own big brown eyes”.

And here he was, having made it back from Moneygall despite a host of Twitter jokes suggesting he would be late because he was stuck in a round in Hayes’s bar. Gazing out from his bullet-proof glass screens to a 50,000-strong crowd crammed in the reserved area in College Green, the American president had them from the moment he announced he was Barack Obama – “of the Moneygall Obamas. And I’ve come home to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way”.

From somewhere in the crowd came the roar, “I’ve got it here!”

“Is that where it is?”, asked the president. “Some wise Irish man or woman once said that broken Irish is better than clever English,” he went on, to loud applause. “So here goes:  Tá áthas orm bheith in Éirinn – I am happy to be in Ireland! I’m happy to be with so many a cháirde”. First the Queen of England ; now the US president.

“God, the Irish language is going to power ahead after this,” said Maureen Gaffney. Liz O’Donnell marvelled at how he pronounced all the syllables in “orm”. He and Michelle were feeling very much at home, he said “even more at home after that pint that I had. . . Feel even warmer”.

A man nearby muttered wearily about the “Paddywhackery”. But it was “charming”, argued his wife. “But he’s saying nothing,” insisted the husband. “Oh give us a break – he’s feckin’ beautiful,” retorted the wife. The husband, sadly, had no answer.

Meanwhile, Obama was having a dig at the folks in the US who take “ a lot of interest in you when you’re running for president. They look into your past. They check out your place of birth. Things like that. . . ”

There was a yarn about his craving for a slot in Chicago’s St Patrick’s Day parade and how the organisers wouldn’t believe Obama was a Gaelic name and slotted him into the back – inches ahead of the garbage workers. “Bet they’re looking at TV today and feeling kind of bad. . . ” he said, to rapturous applause. “Go Bulls!” yelled someone, probably apropos Chicago . “Go Bulls – I like that. We got some Bulls fans here,” said the president.

There was the usual rhetoric about “a proud, enduring, centuries-old relationship”; about being “bound by history and friendship and shared values”.

A reference to his grandfather’s grandfather, Falmouth Kearney of Moneygall, who left during the Great Hunger, “as so many Irish did, to seek a new life in the New World . . . It’s a familiar story because it’s one lived and cherished by Americans of all backgrounds.  It’s integral to our national identity. It’s who we are, a nation of immigrants from all around the world. . . But standing there in Moneygall, I couldn’t help but think how heartbreaking it must have been for that great-great-great grandfather of mine, and so many others, to part. To watch Donegal coasts and Dingle cliffs recede. To leave behind all they knew in hopes that something better lay over the horizon.”

They had nothing to sustain them but their faith – their faith in the Almighty, but also a faith that America was a place where “you could be prosperous, you could be free, you could think and talk and worship as you pleased, a place where you could make it if you tried. . . ”

As he spoke about the Irish poet who wrote “In dreams begin responsibility”, the skies that had threatened rain all day cleared almost miraculously.

And when he finished with the words that “America will stand by you. . . ” we stood in wonder, until someone – an economist? – behind yelped, “Tell that to Geithner.”

“Your best days are still ahead”, said Obama. “Is féidir linn! Yes we can!”

As the crowds broke up, they walked lightly to the rhythm of upbeat American marches, and it wasn’t just the women. “That crowned a perfect week,” said Fine Gael TD Andrew Doyle as he headed home. “I detest hero worship but I don’t mind worshipping such a hero,” said Cathal Grennan, a corporate lawyer.