Sunday 17 December 2017

Local pub lunch is not such a secret service

FISH and chips down the pub. With the First Lady of the United States. And Bono. What could be more normal?

It takes a lot for the coolly nonchalant and chi-chi village of Dalkey to get all hot and bothered about a celebrity visitor.

Neil Young, Penelope Cruz, Salman Rushdie – they've all done the pilgrimage and were left to their own devices. Nothing to see here, just the normal raft of A-listers coming through.

Bono probably thought this would be the same deal. Invite Michelle and the kids to a traditional Irish pub lunch with him, Ali and the boys – no big deal.

But when we saw the elegantly clad ladies who lunch literally clinging to a palm tree in the hope of catching even a smallest glimpse of this latest visitor, it was a vivid indicator that this visit was in a different category altogether.

It had started out as a mere rumour about a "possible lunch" and there was still some uncertainty about whether it was happening at all – until we saw the main street of Dalkey in shutdown mode by 10am.

The place was swarming with gardai, detectives and 'undercover' US Secret Service men.

Four children from Loreto National School had gathered as an unofficial welcoming committee, little bouquets of pink sweet pea in hand. Cara Bourke (10), Kate Keena (8), Daisy Little (8) and Eve Smyth (5) were patiently waiting with teachers in a garden across the road from Finnegan's Pub, where this event was taking place.

Everyone was out on the streets – corralled neatly behind barriers – while the Secret Service men fussed around, rearranging crowds, badgering the gardai and frisking random onlookers.

And there, strolling casually up the street, were Bono and Ali, together with their rather self-conscious-looking sons, Elijah (13) and John Abraham (11).

There was a dignified little roar from the crowd – but then Bono is a local and so can hardly be classed as a celebrity around these parts.

"I thought this was a secret," he called laughingly over to onlookers.

By now, even the Secret Service had begun to lighten up a little and were sharing jokes with the good-natured crowd, who they finally seemed to recognise were completely unthreatening.

By 1.05pm, everyone was on high alert, a helicopter was circling overhead and a garda outrider was doing preparatory laps of the zone.

And 15 minutes later, the 15-car cavalcade roared up the narrow streets, greeted by excited cheers.

The two girls, Malia (14) and Sasha (12), dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, were the first to hop from their car.

And then came Michelle, who was dressed glamorously casual in a green waxed jacket and printed trousers. She kept her head down as she quickly entered Finnegan's.

Moments later, Mary Mitchell O'Connor, one of the 60 specially invited guests, tweeted a picture of the scenes within, with a warmly laughing Michelle in the foreground. Sometimes it pays to be the local TD.

The poor little girls from Loreto school were still waiting patiently on a high wall and their flowers were beginning to droop.

About an hour later, there was some sign of movement once again. The secret service men paced around the cars and a White House aide was seen leaving the pub, credit card in hand. So it seemed the Americans were paying.

Moments later, he returned once again, with a different credit card in hand. Was it possible the first one had been rejected? How embarrassing.

"Thirteen minutes," a garda kindly told us.

And at around 3pm – around one hour and 20 minutes after their arrival – first Malia and then Sasha skipped out from Finnegan's in high spirits and hopped back into their car.

Michelle came next with a broad dazzling smile and a brief wave. And then they were gone.

The little pupils from Loreto waved dolefully.

They never got to meet her after all but their patience was rewarded by the secret service agents who gave them special little star-shaped badges as mementoes.

It had all gone very well, said Bono happily, as he prepared to leave the pub with the help of a garda detective.

"We talked about everything and nothing. It was just a family lunch," he told us.

Michelle was in "rare form", he said, adding: "She loves Irish women and they seem to love her." Bono added that Malia and Sasha had "really enjoyed" their time in Ireland.

Meanwhile, the kids had sat at their own table and wouldn't tell the adults what they had talked about over lunch, he revealed. The crush began to worsen and the U2 frontman and his wife looked increasingly uneasy as they tried to squeeze their way out.

June Daly, the waitress who had served the party, was elated. "It was great fun," she said.

The party had sat at a table for 10 in the back room under the stained-glass crest of Dalkey and the entire group had ordered fish and chips. They had all been very polite and friendly.

"Michelle was lovely. So nice and down to earth and she's a really beautiful woman up close. The young girls were talking to Bono's sons; they seemed to be having great fun."

June said celebrity visitors are a regular event at Finnegan's – but she still misses Maeve Binchy, who used to eat there several times a week.

Local woman Denise Mitton, who had been a guest inside the pub was delighted.

"She was utterly charming – a gorgeous woman and she gave us all a wave," she said.

Donal Finnegan – who runs the pub along with his father and three brothers – beamed broadly, the excitement all over. The menu had included lobster, corned beef, rack of lamb and fish and chips.

Chef Paul Finnegan said: "Everyone went for fish" and Michelle had the lobster starter. The guests had a choice of strawberries and cream, apple crumble or warm fudge cake for dessert.

Michelle had ordered a glass of Guinness – but had actually drunk a glass of white Pino Grigio wine.

"It was great – a real holiday mood," he said. Michelle had said hello to all the family and that she had had a fantastic time.

"I think they would have liked a bit more time," he said.

As for the bill, Donal wasn't saying – but it would appear to have been on the house.

Irish Independent

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