An Ordinary American in Ireland – An Extraordinary American in Ireland
Well from one American in Ireland to another rather more famous one, Barack Obama. Mr. President arrived in Ireland in May of this year and won over the hearts of the Irish population. He swung by Ollie Hayes’ bar in his ancestral town of Moneygall, Co. Tipperary. Whilst supping on a pint of Guinness he chatted and joked with the locals before leaving for Dublin where thousands lined the streets awaiting his arrival. His speech in College Green was something to behold, looking very much at home, he delivered a speech which had the huge crowd in the palm of his hand. It included such nuggets as – “I am Barack Obama of the Moneygall Obamas, and I have come home to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way…It certainly feels like 100,00 welcomes….Let me offer the hearty greetings of tens of millions of Irish Americans who proudly trace their roots to Ireland. They say hello!”
The crowd, rapturous in their applause, hung on every word. Barack told a personal anecdote, with powerful connotations. He related the fact that although he always knew that he had Irish blood, he was never quite sure of the exact lineage and told of his delight at what the Irish genealogists had unearthed. He went on to say, “This information would have come in handy when I was first running for public office in Chicago. Chicago is the apital of the Midwest Irish, it is said that you can stand on 79th St. Chicago and hear the brogue of every county of Ireland. “ He related that he was partaking in the Chicago Paddy’s Day parade – “we were the very last marchers, after two hours it was finally our turn, the city workers were right behind us cleaning up the garbage, it was pretty depressing, but I betcha those organisers are watching this and feeling pretty bad because we’ve got some parade going on right here…”
He was gracious to his 8th cousin Henry, now affectionately referred to as Henry the VIIIth, who had set the ball in motion in getting Obama to come to Ireland.
He detailed his Irish ancestry – of how a young shoemaker named Falmouth Kearney; his great, great, great , great grandfather, “left to seek a new life in the new world, (like so many others ) It is why we are a nation of immigrants from all around the world.”
He illustrated remarkable perception at the lot of the Irish emigrant, using poetic language such as: “How hard it must have being to see Dingle hills and Donegal cliffs recede…Faith in the idea of America, a place where you could make it if you tried. Passing on that faith to their children and their children’s children, we call it the American Dream…. Never has a nation so small inspired so much in another…Irish signatures are on our founding documents, Irish blood spilled on our battlefields, Irish sweat built our great cities, our spirit is eternally refreshed by Irish story and Irish song, our public life by the humour and heart and dedication by servants with names like Kennedy, Reagan, O’Neill and Moynihan; so you could say there has always being a little green behind the red white and blue…When the father of our nation George Washington needed an army, it was the fierce fighting of your sons that it caused the British to lament that we have lost America through the Irish…And as George Washington said himself, when our friendless standards were first unfurled who were the strangers who first mustered around our staff? And when it reeled in the light who more brilliantly sustained it than Erin’s sons? When Abraham Lincoln struggled to preserve our young union, over 100,000 Irish joined the cause, green flags with gold harps waved beside our star spangled banner…”
Barack is not the first American President to visit these shores, far from it, he is just the last in a long and very illustrious line.
The first president to visit Ireland was no longer president when he arrived in Dublin in 1879. Ulysses S Grant arrived in Dublin on January 3, 1879 and over the next few days, visited Trinity College, the Royal Irish Academy and the Bank of Ireland. Speaking to a crowd outside of City Hall, Grant said: “I am by birth a citizen of a country where there are more Irishmen, either native born or the descendants of Irishmen, than there are in all of Ireland.”
JFK’s trip to Ireland in June 1963 is now the stuff of legend. He met with the Irish elder statesman Eamonn De Valera and was greeted like a rock star. In the weeks leading up to the trip, the humble cottage owned by Mary Kennedy Ryan – a distant relative – had to endure several modest improvements. Concrete was poured in the muck-filled front of the barn and indoor plumbing was installed. (As Kennedy family historian Thomas Maier has noted, though Mrs. Ryan seemed like a quaint rural matriarch, she actually had an active past with the IRA.)
In Galway, JFK waxed lyrical, “If the day was clear enough, and if you went down to the bay and you looked west, and your sight was good enough, you would see Boston, Massachusetts. And if you did, you would see down working on the docks there some Doughertys and Flahertys and Ryans and cousins of yours who have gone to Boston and made good.”
If JFK’s visit was about finally taking down the “No Irish Need Apply” signs, the Reagan era allowed Irish Americans to grant themselves a little hard-earned nostalgia.
Reagan himself acknowledged this when he visited Ireland for four days in June, 1984: “I feel like I’m about to drown everyone in a bath of nostalgia.” While in Ireland, Reagan visited the small Tipperary village of Ballyporeen and the church at which his great-grandfather Michael, who left Ireland in the 1850s, was baptized. Reagan famously visited John O’Farrell’s pub, which later changed its name to The Ronald Reagan.
The facade of that building was later transported to The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, where it still stands.. Here visitors can enjoy a cold Smithwicks from the same bar as the President while gazing at the huge Boeing 707 Airforce One on display and the rugged Californian Simi Valley’s harsh and unforgiving landscape. The pub has the original taps, furniture, signs and pretty much everything which greeted the Reagan’s when they visited in ’84.
Arguably the most historically significant presidential trip to Ireland was Bill Clinton’s. The first sitting president to visit the North, Clinton had already made his mark on the Northern Irish peace process by the time he visited in November of 1995. Clinton had angered British diplomats as well as Unionists by granting Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams a visa in 1994. That same year, George Mitchell was tapped as the lead negotiator in the ongoing peace process. The 1990s had already seen nearly 400 deaths as a result of the ongoing Troubles, so President Clinton was by no means intervening in a stable or easy situation. People from both sides of the divide, however, greeted him with wild cheers when he visited both the Shankill and Falls roads.
Indeed, one could spend a vacation in Ireland, just visiting the ancestral homes of those who have held the highest office in America:
• Andrew Jackson (7th President 1829–37) was born in the predominantly Scotch-Irish Waxhaws area of South Carolina two years after his parents left Carrickfergus in County Antrim. A heritage centre in the village pays tribute to the legacy of ‘Old Hickory’, the People’s President.