Obama visits his family's ancestral village in Ireland

McClatchy NewspapersMay 23, 2011 

LONDON — President Barack Obama made a triumphant visit to Ireland Monday, where he was kissed and cheered as he visited the tiny village of a distant ancestor and toasted in a bar where he raised a glass of Guinness.

"What a thrill it is to be here,” Obama said as he waded into Ollie Hayes’ Pub in the village of Moneygall.

It was his first visit to the one-stoplight town of about 300, once home to his great-great-great-grandfather, Falmouth Kearney, the son of a shoemaker who emigrated to the United States in 1850 and whose descendants included Obama's mother. Obama also met a distant cousin, Henry Healy, at the bar.

"There are millions of Irish Americans who trace their ancestry back to this beautiful island,” Obama said in the pub. “Part of why this makes it so special is because the Irish influence on American culture is so powerful in the arts, in politics, in commerce."

If Obama’s Irish heritage is less prominent than such predecessors as John F. Kennedy, it didn’t matter to the thousands who lined the road to see their new favorite son as he kicked off a six-day trip to Europe with the sentimental stop in Ireland.

"Oh my God, he's coming," a woman shrieked as Obama made his way to greet well-wishers standing 15-deep along the roadside.

Thousands lined the route, waiting more than three hours in heavy rain and occasional hail. Several kissed Obama as he shook hands.

John Donovan, a shopkeeper, funeral director and farmer who owns the Obama ancestral home, said he scrubbed the place for Obama’s brief tour. "I'm so nervous I can't talk,” he said. “We have the place spic-and-span."

Richard Wallace, 49, a farmer, said the visit would help town's economy by pumping in tourist dollars. "That's what it's all about." His wife Susan Wallace added, "Maybe we'll change the town to 'Moneyall.’’’

Inside the pub, Obama and his wife, Michelle, found a shrine to his campaign with bumper stickers, posters, and a framed T-shirt with Obama's likeness and the words "O'Bama's Irish Pub." "Yes we can!" one man yelled out.

"You look a little like my grandfather," Obama said to one man. "We may be related to him as well. I'll have to check it out when I get back."

Posing for pictures with his wife and several locals, he joked, “We got to get a good picture with everybody. Michelle squeeze in here ... We got a family tree here and everything."

At the bar, he ordered a pint of Guinness, then waited for the head to settle. “You tell me when it's properly settled, I don't want to mess this up," he said. “I've been told it makes a difference who the person behind the bar is, that people are very particular who is pouring the Guinness, am I right about that?" A chorus of "yeahs" from the crowd affirmed the point.

He told of his discovery of Guinness during a refueling stopover at Shannon, Ireland, en route to Afghanistan. "It was the middle of the night, and I tried one of these and I realized it tastes so much better here than in the United States,” he said. “You're keeping all the best stuff here."

After finishing about three-quarters of his pint — his wife got what appeared to be a half-pint — Obama paid the bill.

Obama’s Irish ancestry is far less known than his more recent background. His father was from Kenya. His mother was from Kansas. The parents lived in Hawaii when their son Barack was born in 1961.

Obama’s quick stop in Ireland kicked off a six-day trek across Europe that will include the pomp and ceremony of a state visit to the United Kingdom, urgent talks about Libya and the Arab Spring with allies at a G-8 summit in France, and an effort to smooth over relations with Poland and Central Europe after his administration pulled the rug out from under a missile defense system the previous Bush administration had planned for there. Obama also met in Dublin with Irish President Mary McAleese and Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, Enda Kenny.

His visit to Ireland was cut short when ash from the erupting Iceland volcano threatened to disrupt air travel, forcing Obama to fly on to London Monday evening, one day ahead of schedule.

On Tuesday, he and Michelle will open a formal state visit to Great Britain. They’ll be greeted by Queen Elizabeth and feted at a dinner at Buckingham Palace, where they will stay overnight. During his visit, he’ll also give a speech to Parliament on U.S. relations with Europe, becoming the first U.S. president to give such a speech in Westminster Hall.

On Thursday he’ll fly to Deauville, France, for a meeting wit the heads of the other G-8 countries: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United Kingdom. The NATO bombing campaign in Libya and the Arab Spring are likely to dominate talks. On Friday, he’ll fly to Warsaw, Poland, where he’ll work to assure leaders of that country and others from Central Europe that the U.S. remains committed to their defense. One likely offering: the redeployment of some U.S. F-16s from Aviano, Italy, to a base in Poland.

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