1:16pm

Sun May 22, 2011
World

Tiny Irish Town Welcomes Obama Home

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 11:48 am

President Obama leaves Sunday night on a weeklong trip to Europe. He'll visit with the Queen of England, attend a summit meeting of the Group of 8 nations in France and sit down with a group of Central European leaders in Poland. But his first stop, in Ireland, may hold the biggest thrill for both the president and the destination.

Obama's actually had a standing invitation to Ireland, but confirmed the visit, suitably enough, on St. Patrick's Day. During a meeting in the Oval Office, he told Enda Kenny, Ireland's newly elected taoiseach – or prime minister – he didn't just want to see Dublin and the usual tourist sites.

He wanted to see the tiny village of Moneygall, home to Obama's great-great-great grandfather on his mother's side. Kenny welcomed the visit, saying Ireland is anxious to give cade milla falcha – a hundred thousand welcomes – to its new favorite son.

"There is no one as Irish as Barack Obama," Kenny said. "And, may I say, sir, Mr. President, they're queuing up in the thousands to tell you that in Moneygall."

Obamamania Overcomes A Tiny Irish Town

Ever since the announcement, Moneygall has been suffering an incurable case of Obamamania.

This roadside hamlet of two pubs, three shops and barely 350 residents has repainted every house, festooned every lamppost and seemingly rebranded every product in preparation for Monday's visit by Obama. Locals have stood in line for hours to receive one of 3,000 tickets that will let them meet Moneygall's most famous son.

"We've all been caught up in this dream. Nothing in the village seems real," said Henry Healy, a 26-year-old accountant for a plumbing firm who discovered four years ago he was one of Obama's closest Irish relatives. "I've been rehearsing what I'm going to say to the president for months in my head. I can't really believe it's going to happen."

As he spoke, the powerful rotors of two U.S. military helicopters thumped in the distance, and a deliveryman arrived with another truckload of spiced Irish fruitbread, called brack, rebranded "Barack's Brack" for this month and bearing a cartoon portrait of the president.

Healy received Ticket No. 0001, since he's an eighth cousin to Obama, the closest blood relative still living in Moneygall. In fact, he lives next door to the American flag-festooned pub that Obama is expected to visit.

Obama's Irish Family Grows Bigger

U.S. and Irish genealogists have detected several other distant Irish cousins of Obama living in Ireland and England, including Dick Benn and Ton Donovan, whose families live just across the border in County Tipperary and have farmed the same land for 250 years.

They're all descendants of Falmouth Kearney, one of Obama's great-great-great grandfathers on his mother's side. Kearney, a shoemaker, emigrated from Ireland to the United States in 1850 at age 19, at the height of the Great Famine.

Every known Irish relative is expected to be standing on Moneygall's Main Street when Obama begins a six-day, four-nation trip across Europe. Town officials have been cheering for Obama since the Iowa primaries in hopes that his entry to the White House would put their long-bypassed village, beside the Dublin-to-Limerick highway in the southwest corner of County Offaly, on the tourist map.

"The Most Important Pint I'll Ever Pour"

Locals have applied 924 gallons of paint and laid new sidewalks. A village caterer has painted U.S. and Irish flags on the front of his home and is cooking Obama burgers. Construction workers have hurriedly built the Obama Cafe. The altar of the Catholic church has been covered in red, white and blue bunting.

Guinness last week delivered a specially brewed keg of stout to be poured the moment when Obama walks through the door of Ollie's Bar, which sports a bronze bust, painting and life-size photo cutout of the president.

"It will be the most important pint I'll ever pour," Ollie Hayes said, standing behind the bar of his pub. In recent weeks, it's been inundated with tourist buses and journalists and Irish and international musicians performing live for free.

"Moneygall has never seen such a carnival. Early mornings, late nights. There's been plenty a sore head the morning after the night before," Hayes said as Nigerian drummers, singers and dancers prepared to perform.

Moneygall's favorite performers are the Corrigan Brothers, a Limerick band. Their singalong "There's No One as Irish as Barack Obama" became an Internet sensation in 2008 and has gone through several lyrical mutations.

The two brothers sang their latest version, "Welcome Home, President Barack Obama," to a raucous, standing-room-only pub crowd Saturday night. An alternative version already lined up for Obama's re-election campaign claims: "He's as Irish as Riverdance, Guinness and Joyce. In 2012, there's only one choice!"

The Local Celebrity

None of these celebrations would have been possible but for the village's Protestant minister, Canon Stephen Neill, who barely has any parishioners in the overwhelmingly Catholic area but is arguably its most popular figure.

It was he who, in 2007, pored through birth and baptism records of the Templeharry Church of Ireland, 3 miles outside Moneygall, and made the fateful discovery of Falmouth Kearney's baptism.

He had received calls from American genealogist Megan Smolenyak who was pursuing the many strands of Obama's background. She, too, will be in Moneygall to meet the president.

Neill concedes there's plenty of people who are more Irish than Obama.

"He's about 5 percent Irish, we reckon. But that's enough," Neill said. "They do say there's a little bit of Irish in everybody."

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