Lise Hand: Silence is golden for Obamas as they escape public glare
EVEN when Glendalough is in full summer swing, there are pockets of peace to be found along its wooded trails and tumbling streams.
And yesterday morning, a deeper tranquility lay across the Wicklow valley. There were no backpackers, no chattering school groups, no day-tripping tourists.
There were no clouds in the sky. Alas, the clouds were closer to the ground and the Secret Service lads were suffering. It wasn't so much the unexpectedly hot sunshine beating down but the evil clouds of ravenous midges, which chewed through even the most expensive of black suits.
But being at the mercy of hungry critters is an inevitable hazard of minding America's First Lady when she leaves the city and ventures into the countryside.
For Michelle Obama was taking a short break from the merry-go-round of madness which surrounds her whenever she steps out of the White House – the phalanx of security, the mobs of media, the curious crowds which can range from welcoming to indifferent to hostile.
There is rarely an escape from the never-dimming spotlight that has been trained on Michelle and Barack and Malia and Sasha for over six years. The family's two-day trip to Ireland has been the usual maelstrom of attention, with semi-public visits to Trinity and the theatre and dinner eaten under the scrutiny of the press.
No wonder Michelle professed several times on Monday to be looking forward to her visit to Glendalough. The security around the small village was visible but noticeably more relaxed.
The place looked spotless. The staff of the Glendalough Hotel had been so excited about getting the site ready for her visit – until Friday when tragedy struck the close-knit community with the death in a car crash of Niall Lynham (26), whose family owns Lynham's pub in nearby Laragh.
His Polish girlfriend Zuzana Klobucnikova (inset, with Niall) is still in hospital. The funeral was to take place a couple of hours after the Obamas left.
But the smiles were all in place when they arrived just after 11.30am.
The trio were dressed casually, Michelle wearing patterned cropped trousers and a black and white shirt under a black jacket.
They spent an hour on a tour of the beautiful valley with guide George McClafferty, wandering around the monastic site and the round tower. They then drove to the upper lake to take in the stunning view across the rolling forests and hills.
Michelle and her girls spent longer than scheduled in the hideaway eyrie, surrounded by birdsong and silence (and a few Secret Service, of course).
Only one part of the tour was conducted under the gaze of outsiders, as George explained the history of the Deer Stone to the three of them while a bank of cameras clicked and rolled.
They heard how a doe would appear at the hollowed-out stone to be milked whenever St Kevin needed to feed two orphaned babies.
Michelle leaned over and touched the rock.
"This gives great power," she reckoned. Beside her, Malia and Sasha tried (and largely failed) to look interested and were clearly plagued by the swarms of midges.
After they had departed, it was clear that their guide, Mr McClafferty, had succumbed to Michelle's charm.
"They were absolutely delightful, really charming. I was a bag of nerves. standing there, trembling. As soon as she shook hands with me – she has huge hands – I started to melt. I could feel myself melting, I was so relaxed. I didn't have a nerve after that."
Malia and Sasha had asked plenty of questions about the flowers and wildlife. He showed them real shamrock growing beside the tower.
"They absolutely loved the lake. They picked up stones and they skimmed on the lake. It was just so natural," said George. "She (Michelle) said it was such a beautiful place."
It was a perfect, sunny morning. But even after the Obamas had left and found themselves in the Bono-led carnival of Dalkey and even as tourists began to trickle into Glendalough, the silence in the valley deepened.
A large crowd of mourners began to gather outside Lynham's pub and prepared to bury one of their own.
A heartbreaking, bittersweet day.