Thursday 14 November 2019

Locals get up close and personal with powerful son

Eimear Ni Bhraonain

HE may be the most powerful man in the world but he was right at home in Moneygall where he lifted babies and kissed grannies.

The people of the small Irish village where Barack Obama's third-great grandfather was reared have no airs or graces -- and the US president and first lady fitted right in.

Fr Joe Kennedy and his 1,700 parishioners prayed for a dry day but rain threatened to interrupt Mr Obama's arrival on Main Street.

Even former parish priest, Fr Pat Mulcahy's holy water from Lourdes in his pocket failed to keep the hail away.

"Oh, he's never going to walk up in that weather," observed Timmy Talbot as he stood in the crowd. "Sure they'll have to drive him up in the car."

But Mr Obama surprised even his own staff when he braved the miserable Irish weather with his wife.

He stopped at the house where his ancestors, the Kearneys, lived until Falmouth left Moneygall and boarded a ship to America in 1850.

The owner of the house, John Donovan, was standing outside with his wife, Clodagh, and their two children, Rachel and Philip when the Obamas arrived.

"Let's go in," Mr Obama was clearly heard saying as the two families stepped inside the original Kearney homestead.

Once the rain eased, Mr Obama was back on the newly re-surfaced footpath -- and the Secret Service had a tough job on their hands.

They never saw him work a crowd like he did in Moneygall. It's out-of-character for Mr Obama to be so affectionate on his walkabouts.

But he had time for almost everybody who could reach him on the short walk up Main Street.

The snipers were working overtime checking the US president's every move from the rooftops while the CIA were constantly alert and listening to their ear-pieces.

"How long have you been waiting here?" Mr Obama asked a rain-soaked Moira Shepphard (66) as he leaned into the crowd to hug her.

Mrs Shepphard -- one of the first in the queue at 9 yesterday morning -- had been standing more than six hours for this moment.

It was as if the US president knew Moira was one of his greatest advocates in Moneygall -- and that she has kept the party going in Ollie Hayes's bar for the past four weeks.


His wide smile turned into a hearty laugh as Mr Obama got his answer from the most straight-talking woman in the village. "I'm waiting for you for the past four years. Welcome to Moneygall," she said.

"Thank you, mam," he chuckled.

First Lady Michelle then came over to throw her arms around her, too.

Moira has been at every occasion in Ollie's pub since Mr Obama's Irish ancestry was first discovered in 2007 when he was a senator.

When she found out he had Moneygall roots, Moira knew she had to meet the man.

So determined to make her mark, she even emailed US TV superstar Oprah from the pub one night to tell the story of Moneygall after she enlisted the help of Henry Healy. "I never heard back," she laughed.

The US president seemed set on kissing and hugging as many people as he could yesterday in Moneygall.

After Moira, it was on to her sister-in-law, Deirdre, for more squeezes. And even Moira's son-in-law, Noel, who previously shook the hand of former US President Bill Clinton added Barack Obama to his list.

Scores more were telling stories on the street about how close they got to Mr Obama. Patricia Hayes stopped the US president to introduce her to her nine-year-old grandson, Sean Moroney.

Sean is a nephew of Billy Hayes -- the T-shirt entrepreneur who is now world famous because of the 'Is feidir linn' slogan which he prints on clothing.

CIA staff have been buying up the T-shirts, which have the Irish translation of 'Yes We Can' emblazoned on them.

"Hello Sean," Mr Obama said thoughtfully while he shook Sean's mother Geraldine's hand.

First in the queue yesterday morning was Maggie Carroll -- and her perseverance paid off as she shared a long handshake with the US president and even managed to get a close-up picture of him for her Facebook page.

Anne Maher also expressed her joy at getting up close and personal with Mr Obama. "I couldn't believe it, he was wonderful," she said.

"Obama kissed me!" she shrieked. "He kissed me on the cheek. I'm not going to wash it and I have a husband but he's not going near that cheek. He can sleep on the other side of the bed!"

"He told me I had beautiful blue eyes!" said Martina Deegan from Shinrone. "I told him he was very handsome himself!"

Some villagers even managed to get Mr Obama to sign the back of their golden tickets despite earlier instructions that the president would not be giving autographs.

Not everyone was lucky enough to be on Moneygall Main Street where it would have been difficult not to spot the US president as he was so generous with his time.

Some older people -- and the sick -- had to stay in their homes with armed gardai.


Publican Julia Hayes (80) was smiling at Mr Obama as she watched him from her upstairs bedroom.

Julia was one of those who were allowed to peer outside while Mr Obama was walking through the village.

The people of the Moneygall diaspora, as it is now known after the swell in the population, were made to feel special by the US president.

It was a triumphant day for the locals as most of the Irish dignitaries, who were given access, shared the same space on the footpath with everyone else.

Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen, his wife Mary, and daughters, Sinead (19) and Meadhbh (13) were standing in the crowds when Mr Obama arrived.

North Tipperary/South-Offaly TDs Michael Lowry (Ind) and Noel Coonan (FG) also mingled with the locals as they attended the historic visit.

Some of Mr Obama's distant cousins were also watching on Main Street as security restrictions prevented all of his Irish relatives from attending the private meeting in Ollie Hayes's pub.

Henry Healy's first cousin, Dave Healy, watched the US president from the crowds.

And it looks like a return visit could be on the cards with Mr Obama promising his famed distant cousin Henry that he'd come back to Moneygall one day.

In a private conversation with his eighth cousin, Mr Obama, revealed how he'd love to come back to spend some time in his ancestral village but that he'd bring his two daughters.

Irish Independent Supplement

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