Obamarama fever grips the whole nation
A tree planted, a bell rung, a country enchanted, as the first couple go to the park. Nicola Anderson reports
President Barack Obama meeting Taoiseach Enda Kenny for talks at Farmleigh in Dublin's Phoenix Park. STEVE HUMPHREYS
SHELTERING under a tree from a torrential downpour, three gardai were beaming, the staff from the Department of Foreign Affairs were bubbling over with excitement, the media were beside themselves and even the American Secret Service men could not suppress their grins.
This was Obamarama in full flow, with two colossal Chinook helicopters flying in the middle distance -- and, yes, it all felt pretty fantastic as we waited there in the rain.
In the wave of euphoria sweeping the country yesterday, there was nothing for anyone to do but sit back and enjoy the ride.
There was no place for cynicism here.
After the progress and "healing" of the queen's visit, this was a different kettle of fish altogether. The only historical baggage President Barack Obama was carrying with him to Ireland was our favourite kind -- a deep-rooted family connection with our soil, no matter how far back.
Besides, this was only an 'official visit' and not a state one -- less of the formalities and protocol then.
This visit, in short, was only ever going to be fun.
Yes, security was 'high' -- but not really. Even the Secret Service guys seemed to recognise that as they chatted informally amongst themselves standing outside Aras an Uachtarain.
"What's up?" called one of the ear-pieced ones as he cheerily greeted a colleague.
"Seriously, with the rain?" the other replied, pulling the collar of his anorak closer.
He had a point. Strong gusts of wind were violently swishing the branches of the trees in the grounds which, ever immaculate, had been groomed down to the last blade of grass.
One of the American press members had neglected to pack a coat and had to borrow a military style jacket from the bus driver. "I'll ditch it when he arrives," she fretted.
A scented plume of turf fire smoke drifted unmistakably from the Aras chimney, taunting the chilled bystanders with its cosiness.
But at five to 10, the sun was struggling from behind the blanket of cloud. Things were going to be okay.
"It's going great. He's in the car and on the way," a member of the American staff excitedly spread the news.
Ten minutes later, three official cars swept up the driveway and so quiet was Mr Obama's 'Beast' -- the indestructible Cadillac with its night vision, tear gas cannons and thick armour-plated glass -- that it was scarcely noticed. It was flying the Tricolour and the Stars and Stripes.
And without further ado, the man himself stepped briskly and neatly out, immediately calling out a friendly "hello!" in his unmistakably buttery voice to Mrs McAleese, the first lady smartly by his side.
Michelle had fixed her hair, which had earlier blown askew in the bluster of the airport runway, and was immaculate in a geometric dress of grey and black.
The American couple cut quite the pair of stars, even more imposing and elegant in the flesh than they appear in photos. But their warmth was also quickly apparent as they beamed at their hosts.
With the tactile McAleeses meeting the famously 'touchy-feely' Obamas, it could not be anything else other than effusive. There were 'double handshakes', hands on backs and hands on elbows, as the fully comprehensive greeting got under way.
"You are heartily welcome here -- it's good to have you," Mrs McAleese told them, and they were all chatting away like old friends straightaway.
Then Mr Obama turned to the press.
"Hello everybody," he called cheerily. Everyone was too amazed to reply but it didn't seem to bother him.
"I hope everyone can see the sun's coming out -- I can feel it!" he continued. The correct answer was most probably "yes, we can", but, again, everyone was far too dazed to offer a reply.
The two presidents disappeared inside with the two spouses, American Ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney and his wife Patricia.
The first couple walked into the State Reception Room with the McAleeses to sign the visitors' book, giving the president a couple of pages worth keeping, given that the previous two signatures in the book are those of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip.
And as Mrs McAleese escorted her guest down the Francini corridor, lined with bronze busts of our former presidents, Mr Obama's voice could be heard enquiring: "Who are these guys?"
She explained to him, perhaps with a hint of mischief, that she and her family "live in a different part of the house -- we actually call it the West Wing".
After the brief signing ceremony, the four of them retired to have a private meeting and perhaps a quick cup in the hand after the long and bumpy journey.
At 10.40am, the double presidential party emerged on to the lawn at the back of the Aras for the tree-planting ceremony.
Touchingly nervous, three children were poised, their hands on the cord of the Peace Bell erected to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
They were Onyedita Ukachukwu (8) from Scoil Mhuire in Blakestown, Dublin 15; Colm Dunne (9) from Scoil Brid, Paulstown in Co Kilkenny; and Margaret McDonagh (10) of St Francis of Assisi School in Priorswood, Dublin 17.
Head gardener Robert Norris was also patiently waiting, gleaming spade in hand.
He had left the president "a fair bit of soil" to put in place because he seemed like the kind of man who was "used to getting the sleeves rolled up", Mr Norris said afterwards.
Sure enough, amid a fanfare by a trio of Defence Forces buglers, Mr Obama got stuck in, scooping the earth over the roots of the tree -- though with not quite the level of expertise with which the queen had performed the same task a week ago.
He chatted with Mr Norris, placing his hand on his shoulder as he told him to make sure the tree was looked after. The gardener assured him that it couldn't be in better hands.
Normally, trees planted by dignitaries would be moved by Mr Norris to another place in the grounds -- but this time he has left the Irish oaks planted by both the queen last week and Mr Obama in situ.
"They'll be left here at the Peace Bell -- it's a very appropriate place for them," he said later.
The children rang the Peace Bell with panache and Mrs McAleese assured them that they did a "great job", as Mrs Obama smiled and talked with them all, placing an arm around little Onyedita as the group posed for pictures.
"Say cheese," reminded Mr Obama. And then they were off, still smiling as they went for a little "downtime".
"I thought they were absolutely amazing," little Colm, who is visually impaired, said later, adding that he had enjoyed meeting the president.
"It was very exciting," thought Margaret.
Onyedita said Mrs Obama had been "really nice and friendly" and told her that she was "very pretty".
"She noticed that we were all in order of height and our ages were in order, too," she said.
The Obamas, it is safe to say, did not disappoint.
Irish Independent Supplement