DUBLIN, Ireland — The Irish people like to boast that no American president since Nixon has won re-election without visiting Ireland in the first term.
So following in the footsteps of U.S. presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, President Barack Obama came not just to find his Irish roots but perhaps to prepare the ground for his return to the White House.
If so, the president could not wish for a better start to his campaign.
Tens of thousands of people crammed into College Green in the center of Dublin to give Obama and his wife, Michelle, a delirious welcome.
As if toning up his rhetoric for the 2012 campaign, he declared, “Our greatest triumphs, in America and Ireland alike, are still to come.”
Referring to Irish and American economic woes, he emphasized, “No matter what hardships winter may bring, spring is just around the corner.”
He told the rally, “We’re people, the Irish and the Americans, who never stopped imagining a brighter future."
The best days for Ireland lay ahead, he went on. “If anyone tells you otherwise, remember the simple mantra, 'is feidir linn' — 'yes we can.'”
Referring to a popular Irish song about him, the president quipped, “If you believe the Corrigan Brothers, there’s no one more Irish than Barack Obama.”
The statement was endorsed by the cheers of the multitude in College Green, helping no doubt to recast the image of Obama as an American with European ancestry.
He drew more cheers and laughter when he introduced himself as “Barack Obama, of the Moneygall O’Bamas,” explaining, “I am here to find the apostrophe that we lost along the way.”
The president was accompanied everywhere by his ambassador to Ireland, Dan Rooney, chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team and a devout Catholic Irish American, whose support in the 2008 election helped Obama among “Reagan Democrats” in crucial swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.
In his ancestral village of Moneygall, the president and the first lady seemed to shake hands with every one of the 3,000 people from the locality allowed to line one side of the single street, leaving them in a tizzy of excitement.
For a president who has never had a permanent base — having lived in Indonesia, Hawaii, Chicago and now Washington — Moneygall seemed to give him a genuine sense of place.
The president hugged his “long-lost eighth cousin” Henry Healy on the sidewalk outside the site of his forebears’ home, and joked afterwards that Healy would now be known as Henry the VIII.
He dropped into Ollie Hayes’ pub, one of only two in the village, where he embraced a half dozen other distant relatives and was presented with a pint of Guinness.
In contrast with other American presidents faced with the same challenge in Ireland, he didn’t take a token sip but downed the whole pint, and chatted with the landlord and staff.
“The first time I had a Guinness was when I came into Shannon [airport],” he said. “It was the middle of the night and I tried one of these and I realized it tastes so much better here than it was in the United States.
“What I realized was that you guys, that you are keeping all the best stuff.”
“It’s not everyday that the U.S. president drops by our bar for a pint,” said Hayes after the Obamas had departed. “We’re going to talk about this day, for ever more, as the day that Moneygall made history.”
Having arrived in Dublin on Air Force One early Monday, Obama first visited Irish President Mary McAleese and planted a tree in the grounds of her presidential residence in Phoenix Park, Dublin.
He also met the taoiseach (prime minister), Enda Kenny, before flying in blustery, showery weather by helicopter to Moneygall, from where his ancestor, Falmouth Kearney, emigrated to New York in 1850.
Plans were made for Obama to leave Monday evening for London for the next stage of his European trip, rather than stay overnight in Dublin, because of fears that volcanic ash from an erupting volcano in Iceland might close Irish air space.