DUBLIN — It was a little dicey, let’s be honest. In terms of his reputation for sincerity and passion, President Obama’s pinched stopover in Ireland ran a serious risk of dipping into the murky realms of tokenism. It was such a short trip, particularly compared to Queen Elizabeth’s comprehensive four-day sojourn last week, that people here might well have been justified in thinking it was no more than a means of killing time while Air Force One refuelled. Iceland’s volcanic hoopla, by now becoming an annual affair, didn’t help. The threat of ash grounding flights for long spells, as it is did last year, forced them to move on to the UK a little sooner than planned and cut short an already brief jaunt on Irish soil.
My personal concerns that Obama’s visit was merely an inconvenient part of a larger European check-list were not dispelled by his first televised words at a press conference in Farmleigh House after a 30-minute meeting with Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
Barack—or Barry as we now affectionately call him—has somewhat spoiled us in the past with sweeping elegant orations, and so maybe this raised expectation was agitating my Irish inferiority complex, because it was a little difficult to interpret his uncertain, even vague words as anything other than indifference and perhaps boredom with the struggles of a nation as small as ours. Analysts watching the press conference thought he seemed jet-lagged and rambling. Obama and Kenny spoke imprecisely about the established necessity to shore up the country’s finances and rebuild the economy. The question of ECB interest rates, and being at the mercy of European bigwigs was not explicitly addressed.
On a cluttered list of presidential priorities that includes issues like the ailing American economy, an upcoming election campaign, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, global warming, and other slightly more important matters, Ireland must have seemed like a fairly minor player. A young child, tugging almost unnoticeably at the coat-tails of this suited and charming man.
As he left Farmleigh, Kenny hastily thrust a hurley into his arms—the ash-carved stick used by players of the uniquely Irish sport of Hurling. The hashed gesture was recovered by a quick photo opportunity of him swinging the hurley with the words, “If Congress don’t behave…”
Ice broken, he carried on.
On the cards was a visit to Moneygall in County Offaly, the birthplace of Obama’s 150-year-old Irish connection, Falmouth Kearney. With a population of less than 300, it could have been an embarrassing affair for us. This was arguably a chance to show off what we are good at it and lift that stereotype of pokey Irish villages surrounded by green fields and a few sheep. Yet there we were, watching him sup the black stuff in Ollie Hayes’s pub. In fairness to him, he knocked back half a pint of it and remarked that it tasted a lot better in Ireland than the US. With Michelle and their newly discovered distant cousin Henry Healy, they spent a whopping 45 minutes greeting the 5,000-strong mob that had turned out in Moneygall to meet him. The coterie of black-clothed men with earpieces looked stressed and frazzled by the proximity of the grasping crowd and the Obamas’ enthusiasm to shake, hug, and talk, but the socialising went down without a hitch.
George Dubya he ain’t.
Obama is liked in Ireland not because of any Irish connection, but because of his ostensibly more ethical agenda. Where Clinton, Palin, and McCain all spoke out about Iran and who they would invade next—as if war was some kind of presidential rite of passage—Obama eased away from the neo-colonial foreign policy that has tarnished America’s mandate around the world. He spoke of forging peace through negotiation, not through sheer military might, an idea that resounds brightly through the Irish psyche. His principles have made him far more palatable to Ireland than his predecessor, and all this made the histrionics of the hovering clench-jawed security guards seem amusing. This is Moneygall lads. Take it easy.
After pressing the flesh in Offaly, they were flown back to Dublin where 60,000 people had gathered for a rally in College Green, just outside the front gates of Trinity College. The waiting crowds were treated to readings and performances by some our best exports—among them Daniel Day-Lewis and Brendan Gleeson. An emotional Gleeson, in particular, gave a speech so rousing and inspirational that he was close to usurping Obama. He warmed the crowd up nicely and stirred the hunger for the strong words of leadership. Kenny, himself surprisingly demonstrative, introduced Obama eventually.
Up to the podium he stepped and embarked on a 25-minute speech that surged through the 60,000 onlookers. It was a clarion-call that seemed to lift the whole country out of the doldrums of this crippling recession—and with a bit of added stand-up, it safely winched his brief visit out of the jaws of saccharine obligation.
“Hello Ireland. My name is Barack Obama, of the Moneygall Obamas. And I’ve come home to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way.”
In a humorous nudge back to the Correspondents’ Dinner back in April, and the stubborn but laughable conspiracy theories about his nationality, he thanked the genealogists who first traced his heritage back to Ireland saying, “It turns out people take a lot of interest in you when you’re running for President. They look into your past, they check out your place of birth. Things like that. Now, I do wish someone had provided this evidence earlier because it would’ve come in handy back when I was first running in my home town of Chicago… Not many people knew me, they couldn’t even pronounce my name. I told them it was a Gaelic name. They didn’t believe me… I bet those (St. Patrick’s Day parade) organisers are watching TV today and feeling kind of bad.”
With the audience now limbered up with humour and ready to cheer, he reminded listeners of Ireland and America’s shared struggle for freedom from oppression, of the political and philosophical friendship between abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Daniel O’Connell, and the influential role each nation has played in the other’s evolution.
In what might well have been a stab to win over some of the 40 million Irish Americans, he invoked the inspiring popularity of the Kennedy dynasty to great effect and emphasised the unique part the Irish diaspora had played in moulding the US.
“Never has a nation so small inspired so much in another. Irish signatures are on our founding documents. Irish blood was spilled on our battlefields. Irish sweat built our great cities. So you can say there’s always been a little bit of green behind the red, white, and blue.”
Analysts have expressed doubt that the visit, though a resounding success here, will do all that much to boost his numbers at home.
The unspoken bind was of the status of the undocumented Irish in America. It’s still a thorny issue. With immigrants dying at the Mexican border it’s becoming increasingly difficult for American politicians to advocate for the Irish diaspora. Even though the case for the undocumented Irish is somewhat more complex, treating one ethnic group more favourably than others is sure to undermine his election campaign and hurt his reputation as a champion for minority groups.
A roaring success in Ireland then, but only time will tell what it buys him in 2012.