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Moneygall's big day

They've painted the houses, scrubbed the streets and stocked the souvenir mugs. Now all they need is Obama

"It is strange that so many years could pass, and so many generations pass, and still some of us who came on this trip could come home here to Ireland and feel ourselves at home, and not feel ourselves in a strange country but feel ourselves among neighbours even though we're separated by generations, by time and by thousands of miles". President John F Kennedy, Galway, June 29, 1963.

John Donovan, purveyor of hardware and groceries, undertaker and owner of a property once occupied by local man Falmouth Kearney, had a pile of documents in front of him.

He leafed through old ledgers filled with copperplate writing dating back to the 1900s which detailed the minutiae of running a country general store, such as quantities of milk sold. Out in the backyard was a small shed where chests of tea were stashed during The Emergency, its contents carefully rationed out to the customers.

There was a black-and-white photo of the shop when it was called John Tierney -- the surname of his mother's family. John is the fourth generation of his family to run the one-stop shop which is situated on the left-hand side of the main street in Moneygall, just after exit 23 off the Limerick-bound M7.

The premises itself hit the headlines recently when a truck carrying explosive materials swerved off the road and crashed into the front of the shop early in the morning while the family were asleep above.

Thankfully there was no explosion and the Donovans, who were evacuated, got on with business. After all, they're a family who've become used to bombshells. "I was up the field when my wife Clodagh rang to say that Offaly County Council were looking for me," explained John.

He assumed he'd become entangled in some bit of bureaucratic red tape or the other -- but he was very, very wrong. It turns out that an old house in the village which had been bought by his mother, was about to become part of the 2008 US Presidential race.

It wasn't just Irish-Americans who went scrambling for an atlas when Moneygall was announced as the bedrock of Barack Obama's Irish roots -- many of the country's native sons and daughters were none the wiser either.

But there it sat on the map, an unprepossessing dot on the Offaly-North Tipperary border, the sort of unmemorable one-street village which barely registered with the occupants of cars hustling along the old, wearisome N7 from Dublin to Limerick.

And once the little village was bypassed by the shiny new M7 motorway, even these vague memories of it faded. When the hullaballoo first broke out in 2007 around the birthplace of Falmouth Kearney, the great-great-great grandfather of then Presidential hopeful, Illinois senator Barack Obama, the national satisfaction with being able to claim yet another US President was tempered in some quarters by discontent.

Why couldn't Obama's ancestor hail from one of Ireland's more interesting places? From somewhere with a few bloody battles in its past (which is nearly everywhere else), or a picturesque beauty spot like Dingle or Kinsale or Dalkey?

Nor would these misgivings likely to have been soothed in anyone paying a cursory visit to Moneygall in the wake of the village's arrival on to the global stage. There was a forlorn air about its short prosaic Main Street where most of the 300 residents live -- the buildings had spent years clad in the road-dust thrown up from the endless passage of lorries, trucks and cars, and then another layer of grit was added while the bypass was under construction.

The petrol pumps have long gone, there's no coffee-shop, restaurant, B&B, no reason for passers-by to dally. There are of course pubs. But apart from a couple of shops and a post office, the village has little else to offer tourist treasure-seekers -- not even a backdrop of majestic mountains or a roaring salmon-stocked river or luminous lakes.

And so it would be easy to sigh and think longingly of all the pretty picture-postcard places where Falmouth Kearney could've hailed from. But to do this would be to misunderstand completely why Moneygall is such a felicitous branch in Barack Obama's sprawling family tree.

For in Moneygall can be found certain things which so many Americans -- including the 44th President of the United States -- lack. Those things are a deeply-rooted sense of place, a connection to the land which often travels back through generations, a certainty about how a family tree has taken shape.

This isn't unique to Moneygall, of course. But it's in stark contrast to the shifting ancestral sands beneath Barack Obama who a few weeks ago was pressured into releasing his birth certificate after billionaire blowhard Donald Trump muckraked with gusto over persistent scurrilous rumours that the Hawaiian-born Obama wasn't an American at all.

So what the President -- born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and Kansan mother -- will find in Moneygall is a lost root, an unbroken thread back to his great-great-great grandfather Falmouth Kearney who emigrated to America in 1850 at the age of 19.

And the forlorn look is gone as Moneygall blossoms in the spotlight and optimism is breathed back into the village. It's been all hands-on-deck since President Obama uttered the magic words 'Moneygall' and 'visit' in the Oval Office on March 17.

Dulux Paints offered to spruce up every house in the village. Funds were suddenly conjured up to resurface the bockety road and pavements, to install flower-boxes and brackets to hold American and Irish flags. All of a sudden it's a different place. Nineteen days before Barack Obama was due in town, Moneygall was a-bustle.

Freshly-painted green-and-cream or pale blue houses now have a jaunty air (one local was holding out against the refurbishments and some of the naughtier lads were mulling over doing a sneaky overnight paint-job while the resident slumbered inside).

And Obama HQ is the red-and-black pub owned by Ollie and Majella Hayes. This affable couple have taken everything in their stride -- the interviews by American TV, the scrutiny by the Secret Service (for the president will assuredly be having a sup of something in Ollie's with his eighth cousin Henry Healy), the increasing stream of visitors.

"It's been mad," smiled Ollie. "But it's important we turn this visit into something that will last afterwards". The whole village is in agreement. On the Main Street, Michael Bergin, the Tidy Towns committee chairman, is overseeing proceedings with satisfaction, for the sun had shone while the painting was under way and now there was a bit of rain to nourish the freshly-planted grass seeds.

And that day, Michael was thinking flowers. "There'll be 10 tubs on each side filled with red and white geraniums and blue lobelias", he explained.

Meanwhile workmen were toiling flat out everywhere. Moneygall man Paul Costello was hoping to have his Obama Cafe open for business come May 23. "We're working hell-for-leather," he laughed, "but it's brilliant -- this village has gone backwards for the last 30 years."

And next door, Donal and Mary Fanning are busily stocking the shelves of their new souvenir shop, An Siopa Beag, which will be filled with pretty local crafts and ceramics including, naturally, the Kearney crest-of-arms; while across the road, Billy Hayes has a pristine store selling Obama T-shirts and hoodies, all printed up in the back of the shop.

But none of this activity has the scent of looking to make a quick buck. The villagers aren't hucksters or hicks, but a tight-knit community of smart, level-headed folk who are determined to make Moneygall bloom in this unexpected second spring.

Julia Hayes, the energetic and elegant proprietress of Moneygall's wonderfully snug second bar, was celebrating her 80th birthday. The interior of her premises is now a pristine primrose, and she has a big American flag ready for action.

"I'm here 24 years and I've never seen anything like it," she explained. Julia didn't know whether she'd get a chance to meet Barack Obama, but she already knew what she was going to say to him. "I'll just say, 'Welcome home, Mr President. Welcome home".

Irish Independent Supplement