ON the grand occasion of his last visit to Limerick, former US President Bill Clinton attracted crowds of more than 40,000 people onto the city's main thoroughfare.
His return visit to Limerick yesterday, where he was made a Freeman in 1998, was a far more sedate affair.
While Secret Service officials swept the city for days before the much-anticipated event 14 years ago, just a handful of Clinton fans arrived at the University of Limerick yesterday in the hope of catching a glimpse of the 42nd US President.
Mr Clinton travelled to Ireland yesterday by private jet and flew in and out of Shannon airport, getting a fee of $250,000 (€195,000) for his troubles.
He was invited to Limerick by businessman JP McManus as guest of honour at the All Ireland Scholarship Awards, where he presented 125 students from across Ireland with bursaries worth €6,750 for each year of their studies, sponsored by McManus.
The private reception at the University Concert Hall was closed off to media with 600 invited guests, which included the award recipients and their families.
Among the VIP guests were businessmen Denis O'Brien and Dermot Desmond; chairperson of the American Ireland Fund Loretta Brennan Glucksman; Northern Ireland Minister for Employment and Learning Dr Stephen Farry; and Northern Ireland Minister for Education John O'Dowd.
Minister for Finance Michael Noonan was also present, along with Housing Minister Jan O'Sullivan, Fianna Fail Deputy Willie O'Dea, Dr Martin McAleese, and Don Barry, president of the University of Limerick.
JP McManus, his wife Noreen, their daughter Sue Ann and her husband Cian Foley arrived early to greet Mr Clinton, along with JP's sons John and Kieran and their wives Emma and Anne Marie.
When asked how he managed to get Mr Clinton to Limerick, JP McManus said it was done with "difficulty".
"I did it with the help of friends. I got a friend of mine to make an enquiry. He's in Europe flying around and this is an extra pit stop," he explained.
In a rare public comment on his tax status, the 61-year-old McManus, who has personal wealth estimated at €775m and is tax-resident in Switzerland, told the Limerick Leader this week he was not a tax exile.
He also criticised the residency rules which mean he must spend less than 183 days a year in Ireland, or 280 days over two years.
"The biggest difficulty I see is when you are entertaining people. You'd like to bring them to Waterville, or the like. But when you bring them, you've got to be there – so you have to block that time out. Instead, you can say to yourself, 'It's a bit difficult with the time, let's bring them to play golf in Scotland or somewhere else.' And it's a pity, it doesn't achieve anything. It's a negative effect," he said in an interview with the Limerick Leader.
Among those invited to yesterday's ceremony from the world of sport were former Irish rugby captain Keith Wood, and Munster and Irish rugby star Paul O'Connell, who was accompanied by his fiancee Emily.
"I've never met him [Clinton] before, but I'm waiting for that one second when he makes you feel like you are the only person in the room," the former Lions captain said.
Clinton's cavalcade arrived shortly after 11am and he entered and left the University Concert Hall via a backstage door, where a large black screen was erected outside.
Among those lucky enough to get up close to Mr Clinton were 19-year-old twins Eadaoin and Niamh O'Donovan from Fermoy in Co Cork, who were among the scholarship recipients.
"He was lovely and said congratulations to us. It was all very fast," said Niamh.
In his speech, Mr Clinton recalled how he was a scholarship recipient himself, which he said had enabled him to study at Oxford and Yale universities.
He said the recession will end but that their education will endure, and added, "Nobody ever got anywhere by expecting tomorrow to be like yesterday."
Mr O'Dea said that he was "inundated" with requests for tickets for yesterday's event "as if it was some sort of rugby match in Thomond Park or an All Ireland final".
After the awards, Mr Clinton and a small number of VIP guests dined in the Bourne Vincent Gallery before the former US President was whisked away again to Shannon airport.
As for those left outside in the cold, there was a sense of disenchantment – except perhaps from Aughrim woman Jo Scannell, who seemed content with the fleeting glance she got of Mr Clinton's head.
"At least I saw him, anyway," the 81-year-old said.