The day O'bama stormed Moneygall
Obama behaved like a man with all the time in the world – relaxed and at home with his people
IF HOME is where the heart is, then Barack Obama became a true son of Ireland yesterday. And we all walk a little taller today.
But none more so than the villagers of Moneygall, who welcomed the president of the United States to their tiny village in Co Offaly and fell head over heels for his irresistible charm.
It is a day they, and we, will never forget. Yet another day that will go down in song and story after a remarkable week of historic milestones for the country.
Did it also mark a turning point for the 44th American president? If so, that point can be traced precisely to Main Street, Moneygall.
Obama was a revelation: this guy who is not supposed to do sentimentality; who reputedly finds it difficult to jettison his bookish reserve and become “a man of the people”. It’s a desirable quality for a politician.
From the moment he stepped from his armoured Cadillac SUV, he had the air of a man who meant business. One side of the long street was lined with people, many with babies and young children, who had stood and waited for more than five hours in atrocious weather to see the president.
“They’re like emperor penguins huddling against the Antarctic winter,” remarked a man from Foreign Affairs.
But suddenly, the cold was forgotten. For finally, after all the planning and talking and hoping, Barack Obama had finally arrived in the village.
The cheers that greeted him shook the very summit of the Slieve Blooms. And then the sun came out.
The honoured guest was met by Henry Healy, his Irish cousin (eight times removed) and two magnificently bechained council leaders from Offaly and Tipperary.
The hug for young Henry was wide and warm and it set the tone for what was to come. After the pleasantries, Obama loped across to the swooning, screaming, singing crowd.
He plunged in – grabbing hands, grabbing babies, kissing babies; grabbing grannies, kissing grannies, getting kissed by grannies; hugging blushing farmers, embracing swooning teenagers and high-fiving simpering young fellas.
He posed for photographs, flashing that famous smile. Crowd-surfing toddlers were bumped over adult heads and into his hands.
He talked and he listened and he laughed. The delirious crowd broke into song.
“If you’re Irish, come into the parlour/There’s a welcome here for you/And if your name is Timmy or Barack/as long as you come from Ireland there’s a welcome on the mat . . .”
It was cruel weather for May. Obama may have lived in the Windy City but it had nothing on Moneygall yesterday afternoon, when a vicious and icy wind drove the rain in sheets down Main Street.
He didn’t appear to notice, despite the concerned looks of members of his entourage – a shivering scrum of slate grey suits and beige macs.
“I think he’ll be going for another while,” shouted one of them into his sodden shirt-cuff as Michelle Obama thrust a crying infant into her husband’s arms.
Gorgeous Michelle, smiling in a shimmeringly elegant silk coat which was absolutely soaked with rain.
The crowd sang again: “On the 23rd of May/Barack Obama arrives that day/To our little village home in Moneygall . . .”
Even the secret service agents were celebrities.
“Shake my hand! Shake my hand!” squealed teenage girls to the beefy minders as they padded past.
The White House press corps, who’ve seen it all, were beginning to take notice. “This rope walk is slower than usually. He would normally make it through one of these things pretty quickly.” But Barack was taking his time. There was no way this outing was going to take just the allocated 45 minutes.
A little girl held up a sign: “Did you bring Bo?” (The Obama family dog.) Then groans of disappointment from the rest of the line as the president went back across the road and into his ancestral home to meet the current occupants, the Donovan family. He stood in the doorway. “Michelle! Michelle!” And the missus tore herself away.
But he was quickly back, jogging up the street, working the crowd. It was pouring from the heavens. He wasn’t wearing a topcoat.
An anonymous figure in the crowd was Brian Cowen, the man who first invited Obama to Co Offaly. He stood quietly at the back of the cheering crowd as the president passed him by.
Just past the midway point, Obama drew level with Ollie Hayes’s pub (which is opposite Hayes pub, which is next to Hayes Bar). The crowd groaned again as he made for Ollie’s place.
The president turned at the door and waved a cupped hand under his mouth – the traditional sign that says “I’m going for a pint”. And a big farmers’ cheer went up, with hoots from the ladies.
Inside the cosy bar waited his extended family (many times removed). Generations of the Donovans, the Benns and the Healys waited nervously to greet Obama. He breezed in and put them at their ease.
Shouts to Michelle to get into the photograph. Hugs and kisses all round. He behaved like a man who had all the time in the world, relaxed and at home with his people.
Then came the big moment – the pulling of the pint. Would he or wouldn’t he? The smart money said the president would do a Queen Elizabeth and look but not taste.
Ollie Hayes gave it the big build up. Barack played along with gusto, asking serious questions about the perfect pint. Ollie, with a steady hand, put up a pint for the president and a glass for the first lady.
Frankie Gavin and the band burst into a rousing jig. The extended family, friends and media waited. Barack picked up his glass and Michelle raised hers.
They drank the Guinness.
“He gave that a right wallop,” said a local in the back bar, approvingly. “Sure he inhaled it!” said his companion.
“That’s good stuff. Delicious,” said the president.
Stuffy? Reserved? Awkward? Not this fella. He could have given lessons yesterday to Bill Clinton.
Back outside, the crowd waited for Barack’s return. Ten minutes later, still wearing their damp clothes, the presidential couple emerged and they worked their way right to the end of the line.
This was pure gold from Mr and Mrs President.
Finally, they took their leave, but they took their time. Obama, waving goodbye again and again and, just before his motorcade took off, he stood on the running board of the SUV, turned to the people and waved again.
What he left behind was like the aftermath of a benign whirlwind.
People excitedly discussing what happened. What he said to them, whom he kissed, what he said. Re-enactments of split- second encounters that will live forever in the memory.
“He held my hand, then he touched my hat, then he pulled me forward and kissed my cheek,” said Anne Maher, like she was describing the final chapter of a Mills and Boon novel.
Publican Ollie Hayes describing how Obama threw down a €50 note – “the president pays his bar tab” – and producing said note from his pocket. How the parish priest drank a pint pulled by Michelle and retired in triumph with the empty glass.
The family members in their finery, reliving the moments again and again for friends who couldn’t hear enough.
“He called me Sweetie,” said Margaret Gally, Henry’s auntie.
“I called to him ‘Bwana Uhuru’ and he came over and asked if I used to live in Kenya,” said local man Frank Heslin, who once worked in Tanzania.
Stories. Everyone had a story.
As Obama’s helicopter was landing in Dublin for phase two of this fantastic journey, Moneygall was calming down. But just a little.
The mist cleared and you could see the sheep again on Liar’s Hill above the town. People clustered around their phones and cameras to see their photos. “We’ll have to get them blown up.” There was a little queue in the Irish accordion shop to see the Sam Maguire and Liam McCarthy cups which had been on display during the visit.
Two gardaí, in their fluorescent jackets, posed with them, beaming. “One’s from Westmeath, the other from Wexford. Sure when will they ever get the chance again?” said an Offaly man.
And they queued up in the shop for ice-cream cones, happily licking their 99s, oblivious to the cold.
A perfect day.
The day O’bama came home to Ireland and a president found his heart again.