President arrives fashionably late to charm the crowds in Dundalk

 

President Clinton arrived fashionably late and the crowd was catatonic with cold when he got there.

But they came back to life when his motorcade rolled in. As the most powerful man in the world walked onstage, par ents lifted up their children to see. There wouldn't be another day like this for a while and it would be long remembered.

They have long memories in Co Louth. Introducing the President, council chairman Pearse O'Hanrahan recalled that in 1842 Daniel O'Connell had addressed a crowd almost as large in the same square. Mr O'Hanrahan brought a smile to people's lips when he inadvertently called the guest of honour "President Hillary" instead of President Clinton.

This was his lap of honour, a sentimental journey to the land where he has some vague ancestral connection.

Nobody mentioned El Paso. Dundalk people don't take kindly to the reference. It's true that during the Troubles some pesky critters came south of the Border seeking refuge. But Cowboy Bill was a different proposition and he was coming to a very different Dundalk.

No longer burdened with the overflow from the Troubles, Dundalk is riding the Celtic Tiger in style. "This is now a boom town," the President said.

Everyone was beaming: Hillary and Chelsea, Bertie Ahern and Celia Larkin, local man and Cabinet member Dermot Ahern. Special guests included former US Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and her successor Mike Sullivan wearing his trademark stetson. Gerry Adams shook hands with the President.

The crowd was extremely young. Perhaps more than any other town south of the Border, Dundalk has a major stake in preserving the Good Friday peace and last night's rally was a rare example of political leaders addressing a mass open-air audience of ordinary people on the bright prospects and persistent problems in the situation.

Clinton charmed the crowd: "It's great to be in the home town of the Corrs." Flattery was dispensed by the gallon about "your amazing Irish economy". Well-briefed as always, he listed notable people from Louth, including public servant T.K. Whitaker, Government Press Secretary Joe Lennon and The Irish Times Washington Correspondent Joe Carroll.

"It's a new day in Dundalk and a new day in Ireland", Bill said. If an Irish politician tried that, it would be seen as corny, but when the first citizen of the US says it, you want it to be true, you want to be caught up in the American enthusiasm.