Sleepy Irish village braces for Obama homecoming

MONEYGALL, Ireland Tue May 17, 2011 1:13am IST

A woman leaves a shop in Moneygall May 16, 2011. Three days after the departure of Britain's Queen Elizabeth, U.S. President Barack Obama will arrive in Ireland to meet the Irish president and prime minister and visit the Co.Offaly town of Moneygall from where one of his ancestors emigrated in the 1800s. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

A woman leaves a shop in Moneygall May 16, 2011. Three days after the departure of Britain's Queen Elizabeth, U.S. President Barack Obama will arrive in Ireland to meet the Irish president and prime minister and visit the Co.Offaly town of Moneygall from where one of his ancestors emigrated in the 1800s.

Credit: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

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MONEYGALL, Ireland (Reuters) - Ollie Hayes does not usually bother to open his pub in the sleepy Irish village of Moneygall on a Monday afternoon, but he will make an exception for Barack Obama.

His opening hours, like much else in this community of 300 people, have been turned upside down by the U.S. President's plan to visit the birthplace of his great-great-great grandfather, who left for New York more than 150 years ago.

After weeks of serving a motley crew of tourists, journalists and U.S. security staff, next Monday Hayes hopes to get a chance to serve the man himself.

"He can have whatever he wants," he said before dashing off to take a call from the secret service in Washington.

"Since President Obama said he was coming to visit, it's just been mad," he said.

The "men in black" -- as the suited security staff have been dubbed by local media -- arrived shortly after Obama said on St. Patrick's Day, Ireland's March 17 national holiday, that he would make a whistle-stop tour of Ireland.

Without a restaurant or cafe in the village -- or a public toilet for that matter -- the conspicuous visitors have had to survive on takeaways from the local McDonald's some 20 km away but they nevertheless happily mingle with the locals.

Two of them pop into the village's other pub -- like most Irish villages, Moneygall has more pubs than grocery shops -- because they have been told they have to say hello to its energetic, 80-year-old landlady Julia Hayes, Ollie's aunt.

"Only for Obama, I'd have retired on my birthday two weeks ago but the visit would give you a bit of life again," the spritely woman, 63 years in the pub industry, tells her guests in the establishment, also confusingly called Hayes'.

WHO IS SENATOR OBAMA?

With nearly 37 million Americans claim Irish ancestry and around half of the country's booming foreign-direct investment industry coming from American-owned companies, presidential visits are nothing new to Ireland.

John F. Kennedy, with his good looks and Irish roots, was greeted with almost religious fervour while Richard Nixon got a respectful if low-key reception when he looked up his ancestors in 1974.

Ronald Reagan's ancestral village laid on an emotional homecoming and named a pub after him. And Bill Clinton was feted in 1995 by a crowd of 100,000 that brought central Dublin to a standstill. The town of Ballybunion erected a statue of Clinton, an avid golfer, teeing off.

After an unusually cool reception for George W. Bush, early in the Iraq war, Ireland is determined to show its love affair with Washington is not over.

Moneygall, where American flags hang from almost every house, is more determined than most.

The tiny county Offaly village, centred around just one main street, has been hoping for a visit since Obama's 24-year-old distant cousin Henry Healy, together with his uncle, confirmed the link with some amateur genealogy work four years ago.

"As soon as we confirmed it, we then asked who is Senator Barak Obama?" said Healy, the mild-mannered accountant turned unofficial spokesman for the village.

"He was only a rising star in the Democratic Party at that stage but as the presidential campaign went on, we were delighted it was this inspiration leader that the village had links to."

"GOBSMACKING"

Healy said the "gobsmacking" announcement had transformed Moneygall. Thanks to the sponsorship of a major paint company, the village has had a total facelift with some going as far as painting their houses in the colours of the American flag.

An information post has been erected telling how Obama's great-great-great grandfather, a shoemaker's son called Falmouth Kearney, took one of the so-called "coffin ships" to the New World in 1850 after Ireland was hit by its "Great Famine".

With Ireland in the midst of one of its lowest ebbs since -- an economic and banking crisis that forced the government to ask for a humiliating bailout -- the locals are all too aware the president's trip is not just morale boosting for Moneygall.

"It's wonderful, everyone here is bursting with enthusiasm," said Mary Fanning who just two weeks ago opened up a souvenir shop in the village selling everything from Barack Obama fridge magnets to Barack Obama plastic lighters.

"But it's great for the country too. It makes people forget about the recession and lifts the spirits even if it's just for a little bit."

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