Irish ancestral hometown prepares for Obama visit

Stephen Beard May 20, 2011

Irish ancestral hometown prepares for Obama visit

Stephen Beard May 20, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: This is a big couple of weeks for the Irish. Queen Elizabeth wrapped up her visit today. Monday, President Obama follows in the footsteps of John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan with a visit to his ancestral home. The president’s family tree has been traced back to the small town of Moneygall in County Offaly, whence in 1850, Falmouth Kearney, the son of a shoemaker, emigrated to this country.

Cynics might say the president’s simply out for the Irish vote. But over in Moneygall the visit has generated huge excitement and a little bit of hope. Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports.

Stephen Beard: People don’t usually stop in Moneygall. The traffic just thunders through this small impoverished town. It’s one straight road lined with rather humble dwellings.

But John Campion, who’s passing through on the bus, says Moneygall’s fortunes will change on Monday when the presidential motorcade arrives.

John Campion: It is a great significance to the town of Moneygall. You know it will be all — the “gall” will be left out. It’ll be all money, money, money! So it will.

The locals have been preparing for weeks — patching up, and painting the town, opening a souvenir shop, scrambling to finish the new Obama Cafe.

And bar owner Ollie Hayes has been nervously rehearsing his big moment on Monday: the pulling of the presidential pint of Guinness.

Ollie Hayes: First thing you do: get the glass, make sure the glass is clean. Put the glass at an angle of 45 degrees…

His voice is hoarse from hundreds of media interviews. The pressure of publicity is intense. Ollie says that with the eyes of the world on his pub, Guinness actually sent down a master brewer to show him how to pour a pint.

Hayes: The craft is finishing it off, so the head is nice and smooth and proud of the glass.

Ollie’s turnover is likely to rise sharply after Monday, when Moneygall becomes a tourist attraction. And his is not the only local business hoping to profit from the presidential connection. Across the road, Ollie’s nephew Billie has been hard at work churning out t-shirts. Every one with an Obama logo, including this one…

Billie: Obama’s Irish pub, and it’s my uncle’s pub across the road — “Ollies”

Beard: That’s a bit cheeky isn’t it? I mean, that’s a presidential endorsement?

Billie: You see, it is unofficially Obama’s Irish pub because we don’t think he’ll be having a drink in any other pub in the country.

Ollie Hayes will pour the presidential pint

Obama’s link with Moneygall came to light four years ago. Genealogists traced his family tree back to the Templeharry Anglican Church just outside the town.

Stephen Neill: This church is the church associated with President Barack Obama’s ancestors.

Canon Stephen Neill discovered Obama’s Irish roots in the parish records. This link and the visit, says Canon Neill, have given Moneygall some new businesses — and a terrific psychological boost.

Neill: It’s distracted us from the appalling economic situation that ourselves and along with most of western Europe find ourselves in. And I think it has made people believe their situation can improve and I think there will be a lasting legacy from this visit.

Whether Moneygall will last as a tourist attraction is debatable. Who now remembers Ballyporeen, the Irish ancestral home of Ronald Reagan? But back in Ollie’s Bar in Moneygall, the locals are busy preparing for Monday’s visit. After he’s finished his pint, the president will be treated to a display of Irish dancing from the Obama Set Dancers.

Dance music

Watching this rehearsal is Obama’s eighth cousin, Henry Healy, who works for a local plumbing firm.

Henry Healy: The most powerful man in the world is coming to our little rural village. What more could we ask for? It’s going to be one of the most historic days we’re ever going to witness. And that’s why there’s such excitement building up around us.

If the town does get an economic lift, so much the better says Henry, but he says just the thrill of Monday’s visit will be reward enough.

In Moneygall, I’m Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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