Moneygall pair spend 'unforgettable' St Patrick's Day with Obama
Published 19/03/2012 | 05:00
IT could have been any pub, anywhere around the country as the topics of conversation ranged from the unpopular household charge to the state of the economy.
And it was the second time in less than 12 months that the trio had gathered at a bar for a chin-wag -- then it was Ollie's Bar in downtown Moneygall. This time it was Mr Obama playing host in his local in downtown Washington.
Henry and Ollie had received an invitation to join Mr Obama and First Lady Michelle for a St Patrick's Day reception in the White House on Tuesday and had been looking forward to spending the weekend in New York before heading to the capital.
However, they had to cut short their visit to the Big Apple to arrive early in Washington DC at the request of none other than Mr Obama himself.
Days before Henry left Ireland, he received a "top secret" email from the US president's office asking him to change his plans -- and to arrive in Washington DC a few days earlier than expected as Mr Obama wanted to meet him on St Patrick's Day to give him a tour of the White House.
Henry, who was pivotal in getting Mr Obama to visit Moneygall, Co Offaly, last year, said he had "no idea" what was ahead of him when he arrived at the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
"We weren't even aware what was going to happen, we were sworn to secrecy," he told the Irish Independent from Washington yesterday.
"We arrived at 11.30am on Saturday to the north-west gates of the White House. We made our own way there and then Ollie and myself went through security clearance. We were brought into the West Wing -- we went into the Oval Office and got a chance to walk around it.
"I saw the desk -- and all the things you see on TV -- it was unbelievable. The act where President Lincoln signed for the freedom of slavery was there and lots of books, photographs and artefacts."
Henry and Ollie also got a look at Mr Obama's private office where they saw lots of photographs of his family, a basketball on the floor and Nelson Mandela's autobiography on his desk.
"We really were given access all areas. There were letters on his desk. We were brought into a cabinet room and different areas of the White House that nobody would see on a tour. The only place we didn't see was 'the situation room'. It's where the president watched the assassination of Osama bin Laden from," he said.
One of Mr Obama's aides gave the tour before the pair crossed the Rose Garden to the south entrance of the White House. "The president then arrived in the room we were in and said: 'Hey Ollie, hey Henry'. It was around 12.45pm -- we couldn't believe what had just happened -- (but) we just took it in our stride.
"We had a brief little chat and then we got into the back of his car. Ollie sat beside him and I sat opposite him. I never seen anything like the motorcade, there were 16 or 17 vehicles and people on the streets were stopping and waving and the president was waving back.
"The windows were extremely thick, I've never seen glass as thick. It was the safest possible vehicle I'll ever be in. We were around 10 minutes in the car and he spoke about his visit to Moneygall. He told us how one of his employees, with the wind, had been blown out of the helicopter when it was leaving and broke her wrist."
Mr Obama said visiting his ancestral home -- and in particular the Kearney homestead in Moneygall -- was "really special" for him.
"He asked us what people thought on the ground. He asked if we thought the Irish economy was recovering," added Henry.
Mr Obama also quizzed the pair on what ordinary people were talking about "on the street".
"We told him about the household charge and he said he couldn't believe that people in Ireland don't pay for water already. He said all those things were paid for in the US with the rates collected locally to fund services."
Before they arrived in The Dubliner pub for an unexpected pint of Guinness, Mr Obama also talked to Ollie about how the pub trade was going, American football and Irish golfer Rory McIlroy.
He referred to how he had met the world number one golfer at a state dinner.
"He said he was taken aback by the height of him and how he was a phenomenal athlete even though he was a very small guy."
Henry said Mr Obama also talked about how he had been "campaigning very hard" ahead of the upcoming US presidential election. "I told him to make sure and check out his living ancestors in Ohio as they'd get behind him," he laughed.
Once they arrived at The Dubliner Irish pub, owned by Tipperary-born Danny Coleman, the punters were stunned. It was an impromptu visit and Mr Coleman was unaware of what was planned until minutes before Mr Obama's arrival.
Chants of "USA! USA! USA!" and "four more years" were to be heard inside the pub.
Mr Obama sipped a pint of Guinness while he shook hands with St Patrick's Day revellers.
"Ollie was the only one who finished the pint," said Henry, before adding that they were "not rushed" with Mr Obama's staff telling him there was "no panic".
"We went back to the White House then with the president and there was a hug at the diplomatic entrance.
"He went back up to his own office, he was working there, and Ollie and I finished off with a tour of the Eisenhower building."
Henry said it was a day he would "never forget" -- as he spent up to an hour with Barack Obama.
Ollie Hayes said he was "in shock" over meeting the US president again.
"He asked me about energy costs in Ireland. He wanted to know what it was like on my own scale of business. He asked about our future dependency on oil. He generally wanted to know what sort of job Enda Kenny was doing."
Ollie, who has a little daughter, Katie, with his wife, Majella, said Mr Obama also revealed one of his daughters was on a school trip to an orphanage.
"He said it was no harm to let the children see the other side since they are well off. He was very easy to talk to, you wouldn't feel a bit uncomfortable," he added.
The pair will get to see Mr Obama for a third time tomorrow when they attend a function in the White House along with Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
"The one thing we forgot to ask him was whether he'll visit Moneygall again so we'll do that on Tuesday," said Henry.