MONEYGALL, Ireland — “We need cheering up and sure this visit will give us a great lift,” said bus driver Ned McCormack as he applied yellow paint to the concrete walls of his two-story house in Moneygall.
All along the main street — the only street — in Moneygall, a village 90 miles from Dublin, residents have spent days perched on ladders with paint brushes and rollers, completing a makeover for U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit on May 23.
The U.S. president’s imminent arrival in Ireland, hot on the heels of Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth ll, who plans to visit Ireland from May 17-20, is providing a welcome distraction for a population profoundly depressed by financial woes.
It has also put Irish security services and the president’s Secret Service protectors on high alert, especially in the light of renewed threats from Al Qaeda following the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan by U.S. special forces. Taciturn men with dark glasses and ear pieces have become a familiar sight in Moneygall (population 298), from where Obama’s great-great-great-grandfather Falmouth Kearney, son of a village shoemaker, emigrated to New York in 1850.
Mother of four Geraldine Carroll paused while painting the window frame of her pebble-dashed house with paint donated to the village by Dulux to marvel at how Moneygall has been transformed in a matter of weeks.
“Everyone has been out doing up their houses and there have been buses coming with Americans,” she said, as cows mooed in the background and a tractor trundled past.
After Obama’s roots in the village were established in 2007, McCormack said, “everyone followed the [2008 presidential] primaries as closely as if we were Americans in the hope that he would be elected president and come here.”
The discovery of the Obama connection was made by Stephen Neill, the rector of the tiny stone church with square tower where Falmouth Kearney was baptized. It sits on a nearby road lined with bluebells and blackberry bushes.
When Obama announced he would visit his ancestral Irish home, it “brought joy and excitement to the whole area,” Neill said.
American flags are on display throughout Moneygall, new sidewalks have been laid, the first coffee shop has been erected on a derelict corner in record time, and village stores have been transformed into souvenir outlets for Obama memorabilia. Tourists can buy T-shirts proclaiming “Is Feider Linn!”, Gaelic for “Yes we can!” and the post office-cum-grocery store is selling Obama Bread, labeled “high in fibre, low in fat.” A large billboard detailing the Obama connection has been put up outside the old Kearney homestead, a modest two-story house with pebble-dash frontage.
Jason Austin, who owns a local catering firm, has transformed the front of his nearby cottage into an American flag, and he jokes with passersby that if he was given a euro for every photograph taken of it he could buy himself a farm.
Obama is on record saying he looked forward to “having a pint” in Moneygall. He is expected to drop into Ollie Hayes' bar in the center of the village, where the sign over the door proclaims the sale of “Beer, Stout, Ales and Spirits.” The small pub has been turned into a shrine to the 44th U.S. president, with a life-size silver- and gold-colored bust of Obama on the bar counter and campaign posters on the walls.
Details of the Obama's Irish itinerary have not yet been finalized but in Dublin he is expected to address a mass rally in Croke Park, which has a capacity of 82,000, making it one of the largest stadiums in Europe. Croke Park is the home of the nation’s popular Gaelic games, revived a century ago by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) to combat the influence of English culture. It is the site of the Bloody Sunday massacre of Nov. 21, 1920, when at the height of the War of Independence British auxiliaries shot dead 13 spectators and one player.
For Obama addressing a cheering audience in Croke Park would resonate with Irish American voters in the United States. However there are concerns that it might be difficult to fill the giant stadium on a Monday, and the event may be moved to Sunday, May 22, or moved to College Street in the center of Dublin. This is where then-U.S. President Bill Clinton received a rapturous reception on his first visit to Ireland as president in November 1995.
British authorities have confirmed that during her visit Queen Elizabeth will attend a concert in Croke Park, where a stand is named after Michael Hogan, the Tipperary footballer shot dead on Bloody Sunday. The queen’s visit to this hallowed ground for Irish nationalists is part of a series of previously-unthinkable events designed to heal the historic rift between the Irish and British peoples in the wake of agreement over the status of Northern Ireland. The queen will also visit memorials in Dublin to those who died fighting the British in the War of Independence and to the Irish who fell while serving in the British army in two world wars.
Minor protests are anticipated by people who still feel bitter about the partition of Ireland, but a more serious threat to Queen Elizabeth comes from outlawed dissident republican groups. One calling itself the “Real IRA” has termed the queen a “war criminal” because of her role as commander-in-chief of the British armed forces and there was a spate of bomb scares last week.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore warned on Irish radio of “many menacing threats coming from these groups in recent weeks.”
The Irish police, the Gardai, have borrowed two water cannons from the Northern Ireland Police Service to disperse protestors who get too close to the queen or to Obama.
However the visit by Queen Elizabeth is generally welcomed by the Irish as a positive step in the normalization of the two countries’ relationship, and she has been promised a warm reception by Irish president Mary McAleese and by the GAA. The United Kingdom’s ambassador to Ireland, Julian King, described the royal visit as “a wide-ranging and exciting celebration of the close ties between our two countries.”
People in the Irish establishment are boning up on protocol for greeting the first reigning British monarch to visit the territory of the Republic in 100 years. Much to its embarrassment, the Irish tourist board, Failte Ireland, mistakenly referred to Queen Elizabeth as “Her Royal Highness” rather than “Her Majesty” in advertisements broadcast last week on national radio. A Buckingham Palace spokesman conceded that there was regular confusion abut the correct form of address — “Royal Highness” is used for princesses — and that Her Majesty had not taken offense.
Editor's note: This story was updated to correct an attribution.