Moneygall cleans up as village awaits arrival of its most famous visitor

 

Al Jazeera, ABC, NBC and the BBC are among those focusing on the Co Offaly village

“BLACK AMERICAN president to visit ancestral home in the Irish midlands” would, until very recently, have seemed like one of those impossible things before breakfast believed by the queen in Alice’s wonderland.

Or a sub-plot from the 1968 Hollywood musical phantasmagoria, Finian’s Rainbow, in which Irish emigrants, the McLonergans – with a leprechaun in tow – cast a magic spell over a US Senator, turning him black. Yes, really. Starring Fred Astaire and Petula Clark. You couldn’t make it up.

But we did. Thanks to sleuthing genealogists and the luck of the, eh, Irish. And the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow? An unoccupied, pebbledash terraced house, with net curtains. On a site where once stood a thatched cottage – birthplace of the oddly-named Falmouth Kearney, a shoemaker’s son who took a coffin ship to the New World in 1850. And became great-great-great grandfather to President Barack Obama.

Moneygall is the proverbial one-horse town, with a “Pure Mule” Main Street located – according to administrative diktat – in Offaly, and a hurling field – by the grace of God – across the county border in Tipperary. And, whatever about the fantastic improbability of the alarmingly infectious ditty There’s No-One as Irish As Barack Obamathere really is nowhere more Irish than Moneygall. Pretty it isn’t – despite the best efforts of John Hinde’s newly-launched picture-postcards.

But the locals (population: 300), suffused with the spirit of “Yes, we can”, are giving it a lash with a little help from paint-maker Dulux and a platoon of council workers. It’s as if they are rehearsing for a big drama.

Main Street, on Saturday, resembled a film-set. The contemporary reality of small-town Ireland – boarded-up shops; “To Let” signs; abandoned, semi-derelict housing estates; and pot-holed roads – airbrushed out.

Spotting yet another reporter’s notebook, a man said: “You should have come yesterday; the Travellers were giving rides on a pony and trap.” And then, as if directed by central casting, two oversized D-registered Chryslers disgorged a convoy of burly types – wearing dark glasses despite a porridge-gray sky and intermittent showers. “The CIA” said a woman passerby, without batting an eyelid.

The “secret agents” perused the window of a pop-up shop displaying T-shirts and “hoodies” with slogans such as “What’s the Craic Barack?” Proprietor, Billy Hayes (26) said business was “very good” and said: “everyone’s in great spirits; it’s great for the village – we’re kind of a little bit forgotten here”. Local entrepreneurs like him, who have also launched a website, moneygall.com, are hampered by a lack of facilities to cater for the steadily growing stream of visitors.

There’s no restaurant and not even a single Portaloo. “The nearest place to eat is the filling station in Toomevara,” he explained, while the nearest public toilet is in Nenagh, “about 12 miles away”.

Across the street, Michael Ryan (29) and Tomas Mazunas (31) were plastering the walls of a scaffold-clad building. A sign, decorated with images of pizza slices, hamburger and fries, promised: “It’s on the way . . . The Obama Cafe”. But owner, Paul Costello confided that Moneygall’s “first eating house” would not, in fact, be ready in time for the big day. However, he’s hoping to benefit in future, suggesting: “Let’s have an annual Obama festival.”

Next door, in the week-old “Siopa Beag”, Aidan Fanning (16) was manning his “auntie’s shop” selling Obama-branded cigarette lighters, hurleys, fridge magnets and key rings. So far, “the best sellers are the Obama poster for €4.99 and the Moneygall Mug for €8.55”.

On the footpath, Church of Ireland Canon Stephen Neill was surrounded by three camera crews as he thumbed a sleek smartphone. There was just time for a quick sound bite about the “electric atmosphere and a great sense of anticipation” before Al Jazeera steered him away for an interview.

President Obama’s “8th cousin”, Henry Healy, reeled off a list of his own media engagements – from ABC to the BBC; the Daily Telegraph to the New York Times;and NBC’s Today Show. He’s becoming a pro.

There was no sign of the “thousands of troops and gardaí” reputedly mobilised by the Government ahead of the visit. Moneygall is policed by a solitary female garda who was “off” on Saturday and replaced by a genial male colleague. He wasn’t at all busy and chatted happily about how grand the freshly painted station was looking.

In Ollie Hayes’s pub, the decor includes a bronze-like fibreglass bust of Obama on the bar counter.

Customers watched televised Premiership football on Sky Sports indifferent – now – to the comings and goings of diplomats, security services and media types. Hayes, who is confidently expecting to meet President Obama this day week, thought it would be “a privilege and honour to meet him; something you’d take to the grave”.

Weekend visitors to Moneygall included Gay Hanna, from Portroe, Co Tipperary showing “Obama’s home” to her cousin, Jon Belford (21), from New York but studying in Galway, who said: “He’s the president. It’s a bit of a surprise to see these humble beginnings in this tiny town. But it’s the American dream.”

There’s still a whole week to go before “the busiest man in the world” – according to Fáilte Ireland – drops in. Oh, and the Queen of England, no less, coming to visit Cashel – down the road – in the meantime. You’d need a stiff Tullamore Dew to take it all in.