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They had a 'mighty time' in 2011 - but what's life like now in Obama's ancestral village?

As the sun sets on the Obama presidency, we spend a day in Moneygall.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube
I do proudly claim, as do almost all successful American politicians, an Irish background.

THE VISITING PRESIDENT’S remarks went down pretty well with his Irish welcoming party.

Air Force One had touched down only moments before; later, the President would be greeted by residents of the tiny rural community his ancestors had left from, hundreds of years previously.

The President in question? Richard M Nixon. He spent three days in Ireland in October 1970 – at the height of the Vietnam War.

Later, of course,  in the wake of the Watergate scandal, the Republican would earn the dubious distinction of becoming the only US president ever to resign from office.

Obit-Massey Nixon waves from the steps of Air Force One in Florida, 1969. Source: AP/Press Association Images

It’s probably no surprise that there aren’t many people talking up Nixon’s Irish links these days.

That slightly on-the-nose joke from the Republican president at Shannon Airport all those years ago still rings true however: it’s why the Chamber of Commerce in the Sligo town that Mike Pence’s grandfather came from were quick to send out an invite to the incoming Vice President, in the wake of his election on the Trump ticket last November.

And it’s why, in an otherwise obscure southern corner of Co Offaly, there’s a stretch of land that will be known for decades (perhaps centuries) to come, as Barack Obama country.

President Obama visit to Ireland - Day One Barack and Michelle Obama enjoy a Guinness at Ollie Hayes' bar. The glasses are now kept in a display case in the pub. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

The main Irish figures at the centre of Barack and Michelle Obama’s 2011 trip to Moneygall were under no illusions about the realpolitik reasons behind the President’s decision to visit their village – just a year ahead of his run for re-election.

But, six years on, as Obama approaches the end of his second term in office, Henry Healy (the 8th cousin) and Ollie Hayes (the barman) still can’t quite get over the level of engagement they’ve had with the White House in the years since that historic day.

The President took the pair out for a pint in Washington the following year, where they sank pints of Guinness with startled regulars at the Dubliner pub. And the walls of the Barack Obama Plaza, where Healy now works, and at Hayes’ Bar are festooned with photos of other White House visits.

Obama Obama, Healy and Hayes at the Dubliner in Washington in 2012. Source: Carolyn Kaster

The greeting has been the same every time, according to Healy.

Anytime I’ve met the President since it’s always been like that – you’re at ease, you can crack a joke, you can have a laugh. And there’s always the ‘when are you coming back?’.

Barack Obama Plaza

The motorway service station that now bears the name of America’s first black president was doing a brisk trade in coffees, sandwiches and Supermac’s on the morning TheJournal.ie dropped in.

The visitor centre upstairs was slightly less well attended – outside, however, there was no shortage of startled overseas tourists snapping photos and wondering out loud about the unlikely connection between this well-appointed but otherwise unremarkable refuelling stop and the Hawaii-born 44th President of the United States.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

The €7 million services outlet, developed by Supermac’s founder Pat McDonagh, had been planned years in advance of the presidential visit.

And while the idea of naming it after Moneygall’s most famous descendent might initially have seemed a slightly less-than-fitting tribute, there’s no denying that the Plaza, opened in 2014, has been a boon to the area in many respects.

“We’ve over 130 people employed, in a village of 300 odd people. That’s phenomenal,” said Healy.

It is down to the naming of the service station the Barack Obama Plaza – it does help and it does bring tours in and groups in.

Heritage signs placed along the M7 draw motorists’ attention to Obama’s ancestral home in the nearby village. And while most American tourists who stop by the service station are pleasantly surprised at the connection, others, according to Healy, are sometimes less than impressed.

You have some Republicans from the United States come on tour buses – we’ve had, on occasion, people refuse to get off because of the name.

kenny Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the visitor centre. Source: Barack Obama Plaza

Breaking off occasionally to answer questions from tourists, Healy still lit up with enthusiasm as he told the story of the 2011 visit and what it has meant for the town in the years since.

Hayes, talking to us from behind the bar at the pub that’s borne for family name for generations, was equally as enthusiastic.

Great-great-great…

The connection between Moneygall and Obama was first discovered in 2007, before he entered the White House. Genealogists managed to confirm that Falmouth Kearney, the 19-year-old son of a local shoemaker, had left the village in 1850 to start a new life in the US.

Healy, who recognised his own family’s connection when the news first emerged, was put forward as a spokesman for the Irish family line.

The village had been preparing for a visit from the day their distant US relative took office, locals said – but things really began to gather pace when Ambassador Dan Rooney stopped by in 2009 and told them he was “extremely confident” Obama would be coming.

US Election Henry Healy on election night 2008, in Ollie Hayes' pub. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

The community kicked into overdrive when the President announced on St Patrick’s Day 2011 that he would be visiting in just a few months’ time. Soon the Secret Service were swarming the village to assess locations, plan the first family’s routes in and out, and weld down manhole covers.

Security was so intense in the days leading up to the visit that some farmers were even given a Garda escort so they could milk their cows.

“Anybody who had a licence for a gun – their guns were removed and taken into storage in the local garda station,” said Healy.

In addition to the Americans, over 3,000 Defence Forces members and gardaí were deployed around the village ahead of the Monday visit.

It was probably the safest place to be that weekend. The army were planted in the forest right behind the village, in the fields and in the ditches – every nook and cranny you could think of.

Obama visit to Ireland preparations Preparations for the presidential visit. Moneygall Main Street, May 2011. Source: Julien Behal

The full itinerary of the day was explained to Healy, Hayes and John Donovan, the current owner of the Kearney home, on the morning of 23 May. They were told he’d be landing in a nearby field at 3.05pm – and that he’d be gone an hour later.

Healy was told he’d be showing the Obamas around personally – not an honour he had been expecting.

You would have expected that possibly to go to the chairman of the council or someone like that.

Crowds lined the village’s main drag from early in the day, as the anticipation built among the members of the welcoming party.

Looking back, they remember being told the trip could be cancelled for any reason, at any time. “Don’t believe it until you see that chopper touching down,” one agent said.

But touch down it did – and the President and First Lady strode out into a blustery Offaly day. As Obama thrust his hand out, Healy recalls: “It was like someone coming out of a TV screen”.

A lot of the interaction and chat was had at that stage. Straight away the President broke with protocol, broke with what we were told … He was going straight over to meet with the crowd. That wasn’t what was planned.

President Obama visit to Ireland - Day One Source: PA Archive/PA Images

The Secret Service, said Healy, hadn’t expected the President to greet people until after he came out of the pub, “but everyone was delighted that he did”.

The Kearney house

Donovan, the owner of the ancestral home, remembers watching as the couple worked the crowd, and not being quite sure whether they’d actually have time to cross the threshold into the Kearney house.

Until he walked across the street I did not know what was happening.

There were discussions with the Americans about who should enter first on the morning of the visit, he remembers. “It’s your house,” he was told. He could handle the protocol.

Ireland Obama Visit Gardaí outside the Obama ancestral home on the day of the visit. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Once inside, Donovan and the Obamas had a fifteen minute conversation about what would have been happening in Ireland and in Moneygall around the time Falmouth Kearney left for America.

“Where you’re standing is where your ancestor stood,” Donovan recalls telling his visitor.

Ollie Hayes

The main event of the day, of course, was the visit to the local pub – which has been run by the Hayes family for generations.

Agents made visits to the bar months in advance of the President’s planned visit, Ollie Hayes remembers. To his delight it was eventually decided that – yes, the space was indeed large enough to host a presidential party.

ollie Ollie Hayes, pictured in his bar earlier this month. Source: Nicky Ryan/TheJournal.ie

While there was (thankfully) no need for it on the day the publican and his family were also given the task of hosting the communications centre for the US Commander in Chief for his time in the village.

Over a dozen landlines were put in place in his front room, and White House staff installed all manner of high-tech equipment so the President would have somewhere to go to direct operations, in the event of a global crisis.

In the end, the inclement weather was the only negative – all the more reason for the Obamas to stay under shelter in the bar. Again, they spent longer inside than anyone had expected. Michelle even came back and tried her hand at pouring a few pints.

Hayes remembers:

“I just said to Mrs Obama – Mrs Obama, would you like to fill a pint of Guinness?

“At this stage all cameras had left the building – and she said ‘I would love to fill a pint of Guinness’. So they came in behind the counter for probably about 20-25 minutes, not planned – he loves unplanned stuff – and we had some really personal conversations with them.

She filled a couple of pints of Guinness and he finished his here behind the counter.
I asked him would he have another one and he said ‘no I have an appointment in Dublin – other than that I’d have another one’.

The €50 note that the President tendered now sits in a glass case just above the bar. In all the excitement, Hayes forgot to hand back the change on the day.

It’s there if they want it anyway.

Obama visit to Ireland preparations Ollie Hayes, weeks ahead of the Obama visit. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

The Obama legacy

Like many locals with fond memories of the Obama visit and Moneygall’s spell at the centre of the limelight, Hayes is realistic about the long-term effect it has had on the area.

The village had a “mighty time” as tourists and stag and hen parties made sure to add the famous ‘Obama bar’ to their itinerary.

But I always knew it would always turn back to the way it was … which is nice too.

Businesses on the main street did very well around the time of the visit – but there are clear signs now that the Plaza, located just a few hundred metres down the road, has been a drain on the established economy of the village.

Two retail premises, including the former Obama Cafe, are now boarded up with estate agents’ notices displayed outside.

Ireland Obama Visit The Obama Cafe, which opened in 2011, has since closed. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Mary Murray, who runs a B&B and an army surplus store across the road from Hayes’, contends that the village has been “forgotten about” since the service station opened.

“We need a sign on the roundabout there outside the Plaza stating what we’ve got and here we are,” Murray told us, as she made her way back to the B&B from the village’s only remaining convenience store.

‘That’s just basic commerce’

John Donovan, who ran the Obama ancestral home as a museum for a time after the visit, took the decision to close his own shop in recent years.

The Plaza is a “huge complex to have on the edge of any village” he says – adding that, like any rural community, Moneygall’s also facing other commercial pressures.

“From my own personal point of view and my business – that shop that I had is not open anymore, but that would have happened anyway.

Obama’s visit wasn’t going to keep that open – that’s just basic commerce whereby the bigger towns are doing the trade… There’s loads of empty shopfronts in the bigger towns as well.

Donovan also runs the local undertakers, as well as a farm. ”You just get on with it,” he said.

Make the best of it and do something else.

ob2 A photo of local woman Julia Hayes holding a US flag in advance of the President's visit hangs above the stairs, on the way to the visitor centre. Source: Barack Obama Plaza

Ollie Hayes had opened the bar early for TheJournal.ie - normally there’s no call for his business until later in the evening. In the village, we spoke to just two tourists. It was quiet otherwise, much as you’d expect in place this size on a Thursday in early January.

Back at the Plaza, however, we narrowly avoided getting stuck behind a coachload of hungry teenagers at the Supermac’s counter.

We appeared to have landed just at the mid-afternoon peak. Staff rushed around as queues swelled at the food counters. We caught a glimpse of a very busy Henry Healy, back in the food prep area, directing traffic.

For anyone who travels this stretch of motorway regularly, there’s little novelty value in visiting the Barack Obama Plaza anymore – but take a glance at the crowd and there’s usually a handful of intrigued (or simply bewildered) tourists.

The staff, most of whom are local, have the story of the visit well rehearsed at this stage.

President Obama visit to Ireland - Day One Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Playing host to a presidential visit is nothing to be sneezed at. The connection between Offaly and Obama may be be tenuous – and there’s no question that the Democrat’s initial motivation for talking up any link was to win over Irish-American votes.

That said – anyone who met him when he was here will tell you Obama’s interest in the area was honest, and that he exceeded their expectations on that afternoon in Moneygall.

They might also tell you that there are plenty of (far larger) towns and cities in the US that the President never got around to visiting in the last eight years.

Obama only made his first presidential visit to the state of Nebraska last year, for instance.

That’s in spite of the strange-but-true fact that Nebraska also happens to be the birth state of another famous 8th cousin of the President – former Republican VP, Dick Cheney.

Perhaps though, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Obama was in no rush to visit the state. “Every family has a black sheep,” his spokesman said, after news of that particular family line emerged.

Read: Obama defends legacy in parting letter to the American people >

Read: Obama says he could have been re-elected if he ran against Donald Trump >

 

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