Monday 19 August 2019

Siobhán Brett: 'When Trump surveys Ireland he only has eyes for his Doonbeg property'

SHANNON, IRELAND - JUNE 05: US President Donald Trump during a bilateral meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Shannon airport on June 5, 2019 in Shannon, Ireland. (Photo by Pool/Getty Images)
SHANNON, IRELAND - JUNE 05: US President Donald Trump during a bilateral meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Shannon airport on June 5, 2019 in Shannon, Ireland. (Photo by Pool/Getty Images)

Siobhán Brett

In 2002, I went with my family to Loughrea to watch Sonia O'Sullivan compete in a race then known as the Bupa Ireland Run. Rapt, I remember waiting for her to coast pass.

I recall weirder things in sharper relief. I have never forgotten, for example, a giant fluorescent placard in the window of a butcher shop that appealed to our country's best-ever runner in jagged marker: "PLEASED TO MEET YOU, MEAT TO PLEASE YOU".

The image of the poster and the accompanying town-wide enthusiasm came to mind this week as the president of the country I reside in paid a visit to the country I call home.

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As I watched footage of couples set dancing in rhythm to a flapping American flag, gazed, stupefied, at a photo of a dummy of Donald Trump propped up in a parked car, or considered the Taoiseach's cheese-mongering tweet of a picture of his guestbook entry, it seemed likely to me that a butcher somewhere near Doonbeg might have hoisted the same piece of wordplay.

I've been living in New York for the past four years, two-plus of which Donald Trump has been President of the United States (in the interests of cognitive function, I find it helpful to write the full sentence, now and again). Born in the States to Irish parents, my childhood was split between east coast USA and the west of Ireland.

When we moved I was young, credulous and pretty damn American. On my first encounter with Galway Bay, I - focusing only on the knowledge that Galway was situated on the west coast - expressed surprise that the US was visible across the water. I was, of course, looking at Clare.

Stars and gripes: an American flag flies in front of Doonbeg Golf Club in Co Clare
Stars and gripes: an American flag flies in front of Doonbeg Golf Club in Co Clare

I was looking at Clare again this week, although this time truly straining from across the Atlantic. It can be challenging to establish a national mood from afar, but I did my best to triangulate.

RTÉ's Pat McGrath reported from Eyre Square on the eve of the visit, where people gathered in the rain to oppose Trump's visit, standing in an arc under umbrellas or with hoods up in a fashion that made me at once desperately homesick and incredibly deflated. There have to be other means of protesting the worst of Trump's policies and tendencies.

Doonbeg locals clapped for Donald Jr and Eric Trump as they drank hungrily from not-yet-settled pints of Guinness. They made dispiriting cases for "green shoots" in Doonbeg. Some took the chance to lend their support for Trump's "coastal protection plan". There have to be other, better sources of tourism, and of cash.

Most of it is funny to me. Funny like the Barack Obama Plaza is funny. Or like the fact that in college, in 2010, college classmates and I worked for weeks on an hour-long radio programme, "Should the Queen visit Ireland?" is funny. Funny like an order for 10,000 cowboy hats ahead of the Garth Brooks gigs that never happened, or like my mom telling me that when her bus broke down while departing for the Pope's visit to Ballybrit in 1979, she was genuinely happy about it.

But I worry about those humourless responses to Trump's visit, whether in favour of some scant economic uplift or opposed to his holding office on principle.

Trump, who has ample evidence in the form of his predecessors' vigorous and involved efforts with our country, seems to realise that the maintenance of some superficial connection with Ireland and the Irish is politically advantageous.

Beyond that? It seems better to scream your position into a ravine.

There is no longer anything resembling a coherent "Irish America" and there hasn't been one for some time. The still-repeated suggestion that some form of "special deal" will be forged for the undocumented Irish in the US, at a time when agencies of Trump's administration are rounding up people for ejection from the country, is folly. Trump is impervious to public protest.

Meanwhile, Trump Tower in Manhattan is often referred to as "White House North". Mar-a-Lago, Trump's Floridian outpost, "the winter White House". For Trump, a known homebody, Ireland is - to this emigrant's abiding dismay - a private pitstop; an opportunity to play a round of golf on his own terms, a place to watch American cable news from a hotel bed.

Insofar as Ireland might stand out to him more than other states he visits, I'm sure he's lately glad that ours is a trade relationship he can more or less ignore. But also I suspect that when Trump sees Ireland, he sees his resort in Doonbeg. When asked by a reporter in 2017 if he would visit Charlottesville, North Carolina after a weekend of white nationalist rallies and counter-protesting led to an attack in which one person was killed and 19 others were wounded, Trump didn't miss a beat.

"I own a house in Charlottesville," he said. "Does anybody know I own a house in Charlottesville? Oh, boy. It's in Charlottesville. You'll see. I mean, I know a lot about Charlottesville. Charlottesville is a great place."

Trump will tell you he knows a lot about Ireland. That he thinks it's a great place. But I'm quite sure Ireland doesn't mean a thing to Trump. Not its praise, not its censure. And, oh boy, it would be preferable if he didn't mean a thing to Ireland.

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