Warm welcome from locals as golfing hero finally goes walkabout

 

Ballybunion awakes today to what one American visitor has firmly predicted will be a "confident, glad morning" after President Clinton's weekend visit to the Co Kerry seaside town.

The American tourist was one of many who played Ballybunion's internationally-famous golf course last week as preparations were being finalised for their first citizen's long-awaited round. "Ballybunion will do very well, but I wouldn't be too optimistic about our President's political future", he said yesterday.

The chairman of the Ballybunion Development Company, Mr Jackie Hourigan, has found himself defending the President to those Americans visiting his pub, restaurant and guesthouse on Main Street who believe that Mr Clinton should resign.

"I tell them that I welcomed the President to the town as a golfer and as a man of peace", Mr Hourigan said.

Yesterday, as heavy rain and strong winds lashed the town, causing the postponement of a charity golf game, locals expressed relief that the predicted storm had held off long enough to allow for Saturday's all-important fixture.

Hotelier Mr Frank Quilter, a keen supporter of the President, once travelled to a Democratic convention in Chicago with a "Ballybunion supports Bill Clinton" banner. Praising the President, he said: "Queen Victoria visited Killarney in 1861 and started the tourism boom there. Mr Clinton's visit will do the same for Ballybunion."

On Saturday, as the President made his way to Ballybunion by road from Limerick, there was speculation that he might stop in Listowel to visit John B. Keane, the playwright. But the stop-off point unexpectedly turned out to be Lisselton, where there is a memorial to another North Kerry literary figure, Maurice Walsh, author of The Quiet Man, which was made into a film starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. Delighted locals lining the roadway outside Katie Nolan's pub warmly greeted the President when he stepped from his car.

He arrived at Ballybunion golf club at 2.35 p.m. to cheers from club members and their families and a reception committee made up of club officers.

At 3.10 p.m., attired in a green shirt and dark blue trousers, Mr Clinton was joined on the golf course by the North Kerry Labour TD and former Tanaiste, Mr Dick Spring, the Minister for Finance, Mr Charlie McCreevy, retired professional golfer Christy O'Connor Snr and the club captain, Mr Brian McCarthy.

The President had earlier privately taken a few practice shots and was given some advice by Christy O'Connor, who reportedly told him to hit the ball higher.

His first shot came dangerously close to ending up in a nearby cemetery, almost presenting the US media with an opportunity to describe it as a metaphor for the intense speculation that the President might be facing a political graveyard in the US. But later, out of view of the public and the media, he gave what Dick Spring described as a strong and impressive performance for somebody who had not played golf for a month.

Meanwhile, in Ballybunion town there was intense disappointment that the President had not stopped off to greet the people on his way to the golf course. Nothing had been left to chance in preparation for a walkabout. The Stars and Stripes and the flag of the President's native Arkansas flew on shopfronts and private houses.

Monica's hair salon was discreetly renamed The President's Shop, selling American souvenirs. Some of the 500 posters, costing £3,000 and carrying a photo of the President with the slogan "Ballybunion Welcomes Bill Clinton", were to be seen on the road into the town.

As the golf game continued there was a heavy security presence, with a total of 500 gardai on duty. The American secret service agents occupied strategic points on the course, their stern and brooding presence a reminder to locals and visitors that guarding the President of the United States is a serious business even on a day of festivities.

At the conclusion of the five-hour game, the President was warmly applauded by onlookers watching from the balcony of the clubhouse. He signed autographs for his fellow golfers and the caddies and put his name and the presidential seal on three golf balls. Then he went into the clubhouse for a quick change of clothes and a presentation to him of a Waterford Crystal image of Ballybunion Castle.

Rumours throughout the afternoon that he would do a walkabout in the town before leaving had attracted large crowds on to the streets. To their obvious delight, he made two stops at 8.30 p.m., one of which was to view the seven-foot statue of himself in a golfing pose outside the Garda barracks. Sculpted by Sean McCarthy from Cork, it had been unveiled earlier in the day by Mr McCreevy.

As the crowds gathered around the President the disappointment of his failure to show up earlier in the day vanished. Jackie Hourigan, one of those who met Mr Mr Clinton, said: "I was very emotional. We embraced and I thanked him for all he had done for Ballybunion and told him how much we admired him."

The President was then driven to the local GAA pitch, from where his helicopter took off in the dark sky for Shannon Airport. Whatever the controversies that awaited him at home, it was clear he was a hero in Ballybunion.

As the celebrations continued in the clubhouse, there was much praise for the President's golfing prowess from his partners. Brian McCarthy said that during the game the talk had been about golf and the history of the course.

"His handicap is 13, and we were going to give him a little extra play, but he wouldn't take it. He went around on four shots over his handicap", Mr McCarthy said.

"We had a points competition, and Charlie McCreevy and myself had 36 each. The others were in the low 30s"

The caddies were equally euphoric. They were Mr McCarthy's daughter, Orla, Graham Spring, nephew of Dick Spring, Peter O'Connor, son of Christy O'Connor, and locals Shane O'Connor and Michael Scanlon.

Mr Scanlon, who had been the President's caddy, wore a cap autographed by Mr Clinton. "I thought he was a little tense early on, but he was very relaxed when we went out of public view. He is a very down-to-earth man. He asked me if I would caddy for him if he ever came back to Ballybunion, and I said that I gladly would", he said. Mr Scanlon added: "This has been the greatest day of my life."