Sipping into the past: Obama becomes the toast of Ireland

The US President raises a Guinness to celebrate his Irish roots and charm his hosts. David McKittrick reports from Dublin
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The Independent Online

President barack Obama did not rush his pint of Guinness, insisting on doing it properly, taking his time, carefully allowing the Sacred Pint of Irish-America to settle before putting it respectfully to his lips in accordance with time-honoured ritual.

"It is quite an art – I want to get it perfect," Mr Obama said to Ollie Hayes, the landlord of the Hayes Arms in Moneygall, which momentarily became one of the world's best-known villages yesterday.

With an Irish toast – slainte - Mr Obama drank, then paused before delivering his presidential verdict: "It's delicious, that's good stuff. I am very impressed."

Michelle Obama, who also tasted a pint of Guinness at the pub, nodded appreciatively.

Mr Hayes beamed, knowing he had made a success of what he had called "the most important pint I'll ever pour".

The Obamas had other engagements on their whistle-stop visit to Ireland but this was the crucial image, the moment at the centre of the event.

And it was a winner – as Mr Obama's predecessor, George Bush, might have put it: mission accomplished.

Mr Obama reserved the formal speech and encounters with VIPs for Dublin. In Moneygall, he concentrated on meeting locals.

Mr and Ms Obama must have met almost all of them, for they shook hands hundreds of times in the village's main street.

There only are 298 residents and nearly all of them looked positively rapturous at the experience of touching the President and First Lady. Babies handed out of the crowd were obligingly held aloft by Mr Obama, then carefully returned to delighted mothers with radiant faces. For the rest of their lives the kids will be known as the ones Mr Obama held up.

The Irish love returning Americans, especially those who have done well for themselves. Visiting presidents have in the past included Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan; they still talk about JFK, though not so much about Nixon. Somewhere along the way in this series, a sip of Guinness, the ultimate cultural reference, became a rite – good for the cameras, good for Ireland, good for the presidents.

Moneygall, an easily missed village on the border of counties Offaly and Tipperary, is the ancestral homeland which, until a few years ago, Mr Obama never knew he had.

Family members had moved to the US around the time of the catastrophic 19th century, which halved Moneygall's population in 10 years through death, disease and emigration.

It was a time described by a local historian as one of grinding, miserable poverty.

By about 1850 they had all gone. And not a lot of note has happened around those parts since then. So when a presidential helicopter sets down on the local Gaelic football pitch, which is half in Offaly and half in Tipperary, it is the greatest event in a couple of centuries.

There were short sharp showers as the big armoured vehicle drove into the main street, which is the only street in the village.

Mr Obama's ancestors may have been heartbroken to go, but they cannot have felt nostalgic for the Irish rain.

Meanwhile, the gift shops which have sprung up have sold thousands of "What's the craic, Barack" T-shirts, some of them said to have been snapped up as souvenirs by Secret Service advance men.

Yesterday, some of the security people kept their sunglasses on, whether there was rain or no rain. The place had been readied with huge communal effort, Moneygall putting out its brightest colours with the help of a donated 3,500 litres of paint.

But the Obamas were much more interested in the people than the paint. They had a quick look inside the modest terraced house, which today stands on the spot where his ancestors once lived; then it was into Hayes's pub to meet family connections.

There the tactile approach continued. The pub was filled with extended family members who never left the district, some of them shy country folk, and the Obamas greeted them with unusual warmth.

Ms Obama kissed half a dozen of them and hugged several while Mr Obama warmly greeted others. All were thrilled, never having expected such presidential intimacy.

After posing for a photograph with his relatives, Mr Obama announced: "Now it's time for a pint" and moved to the bar.

Those present were living testimony to the continuity of Moneygall: Mr Hayes's family has run a local bar for four generations and Mr Obama was introduced to his eighth cousin, Henry Healy, who could not have been more chuffed.

Back in Dublin a city-centre space organised for an open-air presidential occasion had reached capacity long before his helicopter brought him back to the city.

In his speech, Mr Obama spoke some phrases in Irish, similar to the Queen during her successful visit to the Republic last week.

He commended the achievements of the Irish peace process and the efforts of Dublin to overcome its problems, saying progress had been made in the task of stabilising the economy.

He had words of compliment for the Irish which will please both Ireland itself and Irish-Americans.

But for the most part he kept it light, telling the cheering crowd in Dublin: "My name is Barack Obama of the Moneygall O'Bamas, and I've come home to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way."

Beer flowed and a fine time was had by all

President Obama's big day out began at 9.30am when Air Force One landed in Dublin. After meeting President Mary McAleese the presidential convoy took him to meet Taoiseach Enda Kenny, and a ceremonial swish of the hurling stick. While Mr Obama was in talks with Mr Kenny, the two wives walked in the gardens. Then it was off to Moneygall for a swift pint and a walkabout to meet the villagers. Mr Obama then headed back to Dublin to address crowds packing the city centre. Not everything went smoothly – the presidential limousine, "The Beast", broke down, and the threat of the approaching ash cloud meant he left the country early for London.

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