Monday 24 July 2017

The day Moneygall fell in love with Michelle

A new book on Michelle Obama's life as the first-ever African-American first lady in the White House lifts the lid on the suffocating pressure she felt adjusting to her new role. But by the time she and Barack touched down in the GAA grounds in Moneygall last spring, Michelle was all smiles.

She certainly knew how to make an impression.

I'm not sure if it was her practical footwear -- flat red shoes -- as she trekked across the grass, or the way that she smiled and squeezed her husband's arm as they passed the 'Supermac's Fáilte' banner approaching the steps from the pitch.

I was standing on the pavement opposite Ollie Hayes's pub, wedged behind the local beautician, Tracey Martin, and in front of a farmer, Timmy Talbot, who had named his calf 'Cowbama' after the American president. In my pocket was my ticket -- number 0466 -- complete with golden trimming. Only 2,500 villagers had been granted the "golden ticket" as they needed to prove they were either living in Moneygall or had a strong connection to the area to be allowed in on the day.

We had heard the choppers and excitement was building. Soon we would be seeing President Obama. There was barely a word about first lady Michelle before her arrival. All the talk in the village was about Barack -- it was his ancestral home and his day after all.

But that was all to change within the next hour.

There were no TV screens erected on the Main Street so we had no idea what was happening when they touched down. Our curiosity would soon be quenched as the Obamas were about to get up close and personal with the villagers.

An armoured car whisked the husband and wife from the GAA pitch to the motorway and down a specially built ramp to ensure they entered the village from the Cloughjordan Road after weeks of meticulous planning by security officials.

Michelle was the first one to walk up to Barack's famed distant cousin, Henry Healy, when she stepped out of the car.

Henry is the one who mooted Barack's connection to Moneygall when he was a little-known black senator on this side of the Atlantic. She hugged him tightly and told him he reminded her of the "president". She was personable and friendly, remarking to Henry that he was tall and slim, just like her husband.

The Obamas visited the Kearney homestead where Barack's third great-grandfather Fulmouth Kearney had been reared by his shoemaker father before he emigrated to the States.

Michelle took a particular interest in owner John Donovan's two teenage children -- Philip and Rachel. She asked them about their school work and they chatted easily.

She told them about her own two children, Sasha and Malia. She also dropped into the 'Siopa Beag' for a couple of purchases for her children -- some Shannonbridge pottery and jewellery.

Soon the Obamas were working the crowds. The most remarkable part of their visit to Ireland was how they interacted with the people in Moneygall.

Michelle was right at home -- and didn't stand back as her husband lifted babies, kissed grannies and autographed tickets. She got stuck in and left the American security officials with a tough job on their hands as they continuously asked villagers to "stand back" while the couple kissed, hugged and talked to everyone they met.

Security restrictions meant journalists were given very limited freedom to interact with the American president. But since I lived in a bedsit on Moneygall's Main Street, on May 23, I was just another villager who was lucky enough to meet the Obamas.

Michelle's warm smile flashed past and suddenly one of the most powerful couples in the world was standing in front of me. They smiled as I flashed the camera and the first lady laughed when local woman Moira Shepphard seemed reluctant to let her husband go.

The most striking thing about seeing them in person is their beauty -- the Obamas' glowing skin and pearly white smiles make them look almost super-human. Michelle, in a stylish beige mac, modest patterned dress, simple jewellery and high hair-do, looked even more stunning in real life.

She went inside Ollie Hayes's pub where she continued to shake hands with locals and dignitaries. Everyone remembers how cold her hands were but when one man mentioned this to her, the first lady replied simply: "All I felt was the warmth outside."

She drank a glass of Guinness -- and although she may not have enjoyed the black stuff as much as her husband -- she graciously finished the last drop.

For weeks afterwards, her sincerity and beauty were talked about. Then when the Obamas visited South Africa some time later, the first lady was asked by a university student if she felt a connection to Africa. Her reply is what struck a chord most of all with Moneygall people.

She said that she did feel a connection with Africa but that she was more than a little surprised at feeling it in Moneygall during her Irish visit. She said her children understood that their family is "granny in Kisumu but it's also your cousin in Moneygall".

Eimear Ní Bhraonáin, Irish Independent south-east correspondent, is the author of Is Féidir Linn -- A Golden Ticket to Moneygall. www.TheMoneygallBook.com

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