Obamamania transforms Irish hamlet of Moneygall
MONEYGALL, Ireland (AP) — Ever since the American president announced on St. Patrick's Day he would visit his ancestral Irish home, the village of 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 President Barack 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" this month across Ireland 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.
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 2 1/2 centuries.
They're all descendants of Falmouth Kearney, one of Obama's great-great-great grandfathers on his Kansas 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.
Nationally, Ireland has barely had time to register Obama's imminent arrival. The country just hosted a high-security tour of Queen Elizabeth II, the first British monarch to visit the Republic of Ireland following its 1919-21 war of independence from Britain. Her triumphant four-day tour involved carefully choreographed acts of reconciliation.
No such drama awaits Obama. Ireland has always offered warm welcomes to U.S. presidents since John F. Kennedy became the first to visit in 1963. More than 40 million Americans have Irish ancestors. The two countries today enjoy exceptional ties of culture and commerce, a crucial relationship for Ireland because of its current battle to avoid national bankruptcy.
Obama's biggest event Monday will be an open-air speech at the entrance to Trinity College in Dublin, the capital that spent much of the last week in a security lockdown for the queen.
A no-ticket crowd is being encouraged to gather in the street outside Trinity several hours beforehand, lured in part by rumors that an array of Irish bands, actors and other celebrities will provide a warm-up act.
While Obama is widely admired in Ireland, he doesn't have anything close to the fan base built by Bill Clinton, who made Northern Ireland peacemaking a top priority and visited both parts of Ireland three times from 1995 to 2000.
But Moneygall 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.
They held an all-night party in Ollie's Bar the night Obama won the 2008 presidential race, and began lobbying for a visit immediately. Obama announced he would come during the St. Patrick's Day visit to Washington by Ireland's newly elected prime minister, Enda Kenny.
Secret Service agents in dark suits and sunglasses arrived in Moneygall last month.
Locals have applied 3,500 liters 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," said Ollie Hayes, 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!"
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 (5 kilometers) 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."
'There's No One as Irish as Barack Obama' song, http://bit.ly/7WJib5
Barack's Brack, http://www.patthebaker.com/news.php
Barack in Moneygall T-shirts, http://www.whatsthecraicbarack.bigcartel.com/