Thu, May 19, 2011 - Page 7 News List

Irish village awaits Obama’s ‘return’

AFP, MONEYGALL, IRELAND

Pat Bergin, shop owner and operator of the local post office, poses with a T-shirt featuring US President Barack Obama in Moneygall, Ireland, on Monday.

Photo: Reuters

A tiny Irish village is busily redecorating and putting up the Stars and Stripes to prepare for the return of the prodigal son: US President Barack Obama.

Obama is expected to make a brief visit on Monday to Moneygall, little more than a cluster of pebble-dashed houses, a few shops and a pub, to see where his great-great-great grandfather on his mother’s side, Falmouth Kearney, hailed from.

In 1850, with Ireland ravaged by famine, the 19-year-old cobbler’s son left for the new world, arriving in New York before settling in Ohio.

Now the one-strip village in County Offaly can hardly wait to welcome Obama during his visit to Ireland.

Henry Healy, a soft-spoken plumbing firm accounts manager, has a special reason for looking forward to meeting the president — he is Obama’s eighth cousin.

“It is a personal visit for the president to come back to Moneygall, so you’ve got to see the people and it would be a waste to visit if he failed to get to greet the people of the village. It’s a trek home to see where his ancestors came from,” the 26-year-old said.

The link to Moneygall was discovered in 2007. Healy was invited by Irish-American Democrats to attend Obama’s inauguration in 2009 and he hopes to meet his distant cousin this time — though he admits there is little family resemblance.

“I don’t think I resemble him at all. I’ve seen my face superimposed onto his but no, I don’t think so,” he said.

Moneygall — or Muine Gall in Gaelic, which translates as “Foreigners’ Thicket” — is pulling out all the stops, with buildings being frantically spruced up for the occasion.

Surrounded by deep green pastures, the village sits beneath typically overcast Irish skies, with the smell of smoke in the moist air and strings whipping against the newly erected flagpoles.

Obama is expected to pop into Ollie Hayes’ pub. A bust of the 44th US president sits on the bar and his face adorns posters on the walls.

The pub can hold 290 people — almost big enough for all of Moneygall’s 300 residents.

“I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Hayes said, admitting the enormity of the occasion “won’t really hit until he walks in the door.”

“I might have a drink with him. The Americans love the Irish culture, he might stay in for a session for the day. Wouldn’t that be brilliant?” Hayes said.

Across the road is a newly set up T-shirt shop, featuring a “What’s the craic, Barack?” (an Irish term meaning “What’s up?”) garment in the window.

“We’re going Obama mad,” said the owner Billy Hayes, Ollie’s 26-year-old nephew.

His best-seller is a T-shirt reading “O’Bama — Is Feidir Linn”: the president’s “Yes We Can” presidential campaign slogan in Gaelic.

Protestant minister Canon Stephen Neill is the custodian of the baptismal records confirming Falmouth Kearney’s origins.

“They correlate exactly with the American records and are the definitive link that proves that Barack Obama’s third great-grandfather was from Moneygall,” he said.

Parts of the original Kearney house are still there, including the gable end and the iron rods that held up the wall. A second floor has been added and it is now a modest, pebble-dash grey two-bedroom home, with a sign outside telling of its links to Obama.

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