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Wednesday 26 October 2016

How Obama Plaza - 'the best rest stop ever' - poses conundrum for Moneygall

Published 03/08/2015 | 02:30

The visitor centre at Barack Obama Plaza in Moneygall village
The visitor centre at Barack Obama Plaza in Moneygall village
A Barack Obama souvenir coin maker
The now-closed Obama café in the village
Majella Hayes, landlady at Ollie Hayes’s pub where Obama drank a pint
Pat Bergin, who runs Bergin’s Post Office and Newsagent
President Obama in Moneygall in 2011

Chattering excitedly, Japanese tourists disembark from a coach and their cameras lead the way as they cross the road over to a field where some Friesians are peacefully chewing the cud.

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Nothing surprises these cows any more. Having suddenly found themselves the residents of a little slice of Route 66 in Moneygall, Co Offaly, in their short lifetime, they have seen it all.

Indoors at Obama Plaza, a man is intently shovelling €3 into a penny press machine to buy a souvenir token.

Built by Supermac's Midas Pat McDonagh, the Plaza is open just a year now.

The tables are full with diners and passing hordes sample muffins from New York, doughnuts from Canada, croissants from France, or dig into a chicken snack box and pick up a jokey "What's the craic, Barack?" mug on their way out.

A Fourth of July festival with music, held there last month was a roaring success, attracting 3,000 visitors.

A dozen tour buses stop here every day. And with the Plaza employing 112 people out of Moneygall's population of 300, this place is an enormous local industry.

Staff are chatty and cheerful, with a word for everyone, and the entire premises is pristine and heavily Obama-branded, right down to the frosted emblems on the windows.

Bill and Jamie Rosenberg from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, on a recent visit, were full of praise, endorsing it as: "The best rest stop in the world!"

Randy Lashua, from Dublin, California, went a step further: "Best rest stop ever!" he enthused, having added his voice to the multitude of tickled-pink Americans who signed the guest book in the Barack Obama exhibition rooms.

We take the first exit at the roundabout, following the winding road into Moneygall where a woman out watering her window box is the sole inhabitant of Main Street.

After the din of Obama Plaza, the leaden silence, broken only by the caw of rooks, is even more ear-ringingly striking, until a van roars by with three council workers up front, bearing a load of road signs.

A silver 05 Ford Focus is parked directly outside Obama's ancestral home bearing a 'For Sale' sign, priced at €2,500, and the house itself has reverted from object of global curiosity to common-or-garden rental residence once again, no longer open to the public.

Another 'For Sale or Lease' sign adorns the front of the firmly shut Obama Cafe.

Pushing her child on a swing in the new children's playground that is the finest for miles around and attracts families from as far away as Nenagh, a young mother gives first notice of Moneygall's conundrum, unforeseen and unintended, but one which has no apparent solution.

"The Plaza is doing well and it's the biggest employer around - but the village itself is suffering," she says quietly.

She misses the café, which was "country-style" and cosy, but it closed shortly after the Plaza opened.

Another local woman sums it up succinctly: The glittering roadside pitstop is now "the White House of the village and Moneygall is the avenue. But when you hit the White House before the avenue, there's no reason to go up the avenue".

"It's very, very, very quiet," confirms Pat Bergin, who with his wife Mary has run a grocery and post office on the Main Street for 27 years.

The bypass was the first blow but this was initially masked by the Obama bounce which brought hordes of curious visitors through the streets of Moneygall.

"Moneygall was never a shopping village," he explains, adding that the big shop would always be done in Nenagh or Roscrea. Passing trade was their mainstay and that is now largely gone.

But he is matter-of-fact about the way things are going, saying "that's life".

From behind the counter of his own store, part grocery, part hardware supplier, and which has been in the family since 1895, John Donovan is taking the philosophical long view that Moneygall is no different to any other town or village in Ireland - or indeed the Western world.

It is society that is changing, he points out. People no longer want to live or shop in the old way.

His grandmother used to store chests of tea in the sheds out the back and Donovans did "a fine business" in the days of the pony and trap.

But now people want to do their shopping in stores with fancy fittings and expensive advertising campaigns.

Mr Donovan is also the owner of the terraced house discovered to have been the former homestead of Moneygall shoemaker Falmouth Kearney, Obama's great-great-great-grandfather.

He feels it should be open as a tourist attraction, as a reason to bring visitors into Moneygall again.

As a shopkeeper, funeral director and part-time farmer, running an ancestral home was "something I knew nothing about," he says.

He did try for a while, selling a little by way of a few souvenirs but with the OPW telling him that he would have to wait 12 months for funding, it proved impossible, and in any case, he was not even approached.

"Who would be responsible for it and who would run it?" he asks.

"If I charged going in the door, I'd have to provide a viable product. And if I gave a speech I couldn't have justified it," he says.

In the end, renting it out seemed the best option.

There is still reason for tourists to stop in Moneygall - and many still do, to sample Ollie Hayes's pub where the president himself famously had a pint of Guinness.

At lunchtime, there are already four separate groups of travellers sitting at tables, and landlady Majella Hayes says this is fairly typical.

"It'll be like this all day, with busy and quiet periods," she says. But business is good and they are happy.

Henry Healy, Obama's eighth cousin who was influential in bringing him to Moneygall, now works as Operations Manager for the Plaza. He knows Moneygall is an example of the realities of rural Ireland, with emigration and young people moving away to bigger towns and villages.

"These realities were there before Obama's visit and they were there after," he says.

But the visit brought the attention of the world to the village and it brought financial advantages. It also brought a sense of real pride and engendered a greater community spirit, he says.

They are not holding their breath for Obama to visit again.

"But if he does come, Moneygall will be ready," vows Henry.

Irish Independent

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