by Liz Walter
‘Hello Dublin! Hello Ireland! My name is Barack Obama of the Moneygall Obamas, and I’ve come home to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way.’
This is how the 44th president of the United States jokingly addressed the huge crowd that had gathered to greet him in Dublin on his visit in May, referring to the fact that many Irish names begin with the prefix O’-. Of course, his own ‘O’ comes from his Kenyan father, but he had come to Ireland to see the birthplace of Falmouth Kearney, his maternal great-great-great grandfather.
With almost 12% of American citizens claiming Irish ancestry, being able to show off family ties in Ireland can only be positive for US politicians, and his Dublin speech referred repeatedly to the contributions of the Irish to American life. However, any cynicism connected with the possible political advantages of the trip was dispelled from the moment Air Force One touched down in Dublin, and he and first lady Michelle proceeded to charm the nation. Despite increased security following the killing of Osama bin Laden, well-wishers lined the streets, and the Obamas hugged, smiled, kissed and embraced their way through their visit.
The highlight of the day was probably the unprecedented 90 minutes spent in what many newspapers referred to as Obama’s ‘ancestral home‘, an oddly grand term for the small village of Moneygall where his forebears lived, and from where Falmouth Kearney left for Ohio in 1850, one more person in the wave of emigrants trying to escape the poverty, disease and despair of the Great Famine. There, the Obamas posed for photographs with distant relations, and visited the local pub to sample a glass of Guinness, the famous Irish stout, or dark beer.
Back in Dublin, an adoring crowd was happy to forgive Obama’s rather inexpert attempts at speaking Gaelic, though presumably he is familiar with the word taoiseach /’tiːʃək/, which literally means ‘leader’ and is the name given to the Irish Prime Minister, with whom he had earlier had talks about Ireland’s economic difficulties.
The day saw just one tricky moment, when a huge limousine, thought to be the president’s ‘Big Beast’ (though US officials later denied this) became grounded on a hump in the road at the exit of the US embassy in Dublin. Apart from that, the day was a model of perfect planning.
Not even the president’s entourage can plan for the whims of nature, though, and with clouds of volcanic ash blowing in from Iceland, the Obamas were forced to make an early exit. However welcome they might have been in Ireland, and however much they might have been enjoying themselves, they could not risk an enforced extension to their stay.
Barack Obama is the 6th US president to visit Ireland, and many there will be hoping that he will deliver on his promise to be the first to return for a second time.