News Martina Devlin

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Martina Devlin: Heartfelt act of friendship uplifted Irish everywhere

Published 24/05/2011 | 05:00

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Finally, the stage belonged to the descendant of a teenage emigrant from a small town in Ireland - a man who personifies the American dream

Let no one be in any doubt: he has the JFK electricity. And he no longer needs a Kennedy to hold his hand while he channels it.

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Barack Obama came into his own when he set foot on Irish soil yesterday, and immediately behaved as if he felt right at home.

Not because he said "slainte" and showed a suitable reverence for the black stuff. Not because he held a hurley stick or handled a spade like a Mick (although, as it happens, he did).

No, Obama convinced as one of us because he couldn't tear himself away from Moneygall -- a small town that, with all due respect to its citizens, wouldn't matter a fiddler's unless you happened to be one of its sons or daughters.

The connection with place which defines Irish people seemed to flow through the president. Standing in Main Street, Moneygall, the man from Washington who has often been described as aloof or detached sprang into life.

Grinning at the people thronged there to welcome him, locals descended from families known to his great-great-great-grandfather, Obama was transformed. The place got under his skin. It might not have been a homecoming, exactly, but it certainly amounted to recognition of his roots at a visceral level.

Moneygall accomplished more inside 90 minutes than decades of diplomacy could hope to match. Even in the rain. Despite the crowds, despite the cameras, it radiated intimacy. The president is not an overtly emotional man but he looked moved there.

Before yesterday, I struggled to place him in the Co Offaly village. The parish records proving his roots led back to Ireland were fine and dandy in theory, but they were just pieces of paper.

Plans probably wouldn't have been laid for Obama to clink glasses in Ollie Hayes's pub if he was a teacher or a lawyer, I thought. It was primarily because he was a US president seeking a second term that he was visiting Ireland.

Maybe I'm right and maybe I'm wrong. Perhaps he'd have come searching for his Irish roots eventually. But he was never a homesick emigrant from these shores, or a dislocated Irish-American. It was a challenge to be accepted in the Chicago St Patrick's Day Parade, as he admitted later yesterday. Not any more.

In Moneygall he met family. Distant, but blood all the same. And they claimed him as theirs -- as ours too, by extension. Various cousins were lined up, including his eighth cousin Henry Healy with the same ears as Barack, by one of those genetic quirks.

The Obamas hugged and kissed them like long-lost relatives, and the president even teasingly referred to Henry Healy as Henry VIII.

The couple's warmth extended beyond the family tree. It's doubtful if there was a single hand in that town they didn't shake during an extraordinarily demonstrative walkabout.

It's rare to see VIPs -- even ones with their own standing army of security personnel -- lean so far into a mass of people, stretching beyond the front row to touch hands. It's rare to see a first lady take the faces of strangers between her hands.

It's perhaps less rare to see a politician cuddle a baby, especially with the voters back home watching, but Obama did it three times and gave the infants a story they can relate for the rest of their lives. Once they learn to speak.

The couple kept plunging back into the crowd, signing autographs, admiring handmade posters of welcome, engaging in conversation. The rain was heavy -- we prefer to call it only a drop of moist air, Mr President -- but the Obamas were undeterred.

The one tetchy note came from the Obamas' security personnel, with their repeated "back off, back off" shouts at the photographers during the walkabout. The couple's good humour was undented, however. Even the weather couldn't dampen it.

The obligatory photo opportunity with a pint of Guinness, which both Barack and Michelle sampled, was sailed through. The president acknowledged the capacity for it all to go horribly wrong with his "I don't want to mess this up" as the pint was pulled. But he need not have worried. If he'd have preferred to ask the publican for a glass of iced tea, apparently one of his favourite refreshments, he hid it well.

The visit to Ireland qualifies as a stopover, despite that eloquent speech in Dublin where he highlighted how the Irish contribution to the US reflected that nation's story; a speech which seemed designed to resonate with an American audience as much as an Irish one.

But there was nothing rushed about that trip to Moneygall. The president looked as if he'd gladly nip back to Offaly after his event in College Green. After all, what are helicopters for?

Shortly before he took to the stage in Dublin city centre, a poignant moment occurred when actor Stephen Rea spoke to the ghosts of our people forced to emigrate in the past -- poignant because so many are doing it reluctantly once again. He quoted Yeats addressing those emigrants: "Come dance with me in Ireland."

It was a theme picked up by the Taoiseach. Addressing the diaspora abroad who define themselves as Irish either by blood, marriage or desire, he said: "We, your Irish family, are right here to welcome you to follow your president home."

Now if that doesn't bring in the tourists, there's no justice.

And finally the stage belonged to the descendant of a teenage emigrant from a small town in Ireland -- a man who personifies the American dream. A natural orator, he reminded us how the possibility of a brighter future shimmers before us: "Your best days are still ahead."

Brief though their stay was, it was an act of friendship from Barack and Michelle Obama to pay a visit to Ireland yesterday. What odds if, somewhere in the back of his mind, the president hopes there might be a few votes in it?

He shared some of his "yes we can" positive reinforcement with us. That gets my vote.

Irish Independent

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