The opportunity to see one’s president is not one that comes up very often, particularly when you are in a foreign country, and even more so when that foreign country has little in the way of political influence. Yet, lo and behold, it was announced that President Obama would be making a visit to Ireland while I was still here. What for? An official State visit? Revisiting the Northern Ireland peace issues? Something related to the Irish bailout? Answer: none of the above. Instead, the United States of America’s first black president, the one whom certain sects believed was Kenyon and a Muslim, is in fact, Irish. Well, technically 5% of his blood is, but that’s more than enough for the people of Ireland to count him as one of theirs (a song was written by the Corrigan Brothers called, “There’s No One as Irish as Barack Obama”).
Genealogists discovered a while back that President Obama had roots to the small town of Moneygall, by way of his great-great-grandfather Falmouth Kearney, a shoemaker who immigrated to America during one of Ireland’s famines. 150-some years later, his great-great-grandson, the President of the United States, returned to the small village to meet his 8th cousin, Henry Healy, and find his roots.
To celebrate, Ireland collectively went nuts. I can’t vouch for the small town of Moneygall, which apparently had every rock and house painted in Irish and American colors, but Dublin certainly went overboard in terms of its preparation to receive the president. The bookie agency Paddy Power changed its name for the week to O’Bama Power. There were Obama cakes sold in shops. American flags were hanging from every storefront, in a country where hanging an Irish flag tends to mean Republican or even IRA-leaning tendencies. It was astounding. Compare these warm welcomes to the Irish publics reception to the Queen of England’s visit less than a week before, with posters all over town with “NO Royal Visits while ENGLSIH Troops Hold Irish Soil!” I even saw a guy flick off a television screen with the Queen on it. I couldn’t believe my eyes at all of the excitement.
On the Monday morning of his visit, a few friends and I went to queue in front of security to get into the area where Obama would give a speech. We got there at around half past nine in the morning, pretty near the front of the queue, though we would have to stand and wait until two for them to open the gates to go through security, getting patted down by Secret Service Agents in the process, and it wasn’t until half past four that the “festivities” began. Ireland wanted to impress the president and so gathered a large number of Irish musicians, actors, and other famous figures to put on an “opening act” as it were for the president. Actors Brendan Gleeson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Saorise Ronan, and Gabriel Byrne gave brief speeches, along with a number of famous sportscasters and other sports figures. The Irish musicians ranged in age and style, from traditional Irish music, modern rock, pop, to…Jedward.
Jedward is hard sensation to explain, if it’s possible at all. Jedward are a pair of twins, John and Edward, that became popular from the show “The X-Factor” (think American Idol), where they made waves with their over-the-top hair and excessively bubbly personalities that makes you question whether anything is going on upstairs for them. But popular they most certainly are, even though they personally breed feelings of vague homoerotic incestuous undertones to their dancing around in bright red costumes. Imagine Lady Gaga, but completely unaware of their schtick. It was surreal to see this absurd teen sensation perform on the same stage that the president of the United States was about to occupy.
Following Jedward’s performance, which was interrupted slightly by a sudden burst of rain and wind from the heaven’s that many took as a sign that some higher power/s did not approve of Jedward, Ireland’s Taoiseach took the stage to warm up the crowd. He was received with a mix of cheers and equal boos, either because the crowd hated him or hated the fact that he was delaying Obama from coming onstage, but he tried to push ahead. As the Taoiseach neared the end of his speech, a shrieking of almost unbelievable proportions came out of the audience, causing me to wonder if the Beatles were coming out now, when I saw that President Obama and his wife Michelle had come onstage a bit early, and from there the Taoiseach had to basically give up and abdicate the podium to appease the crowd.
Obama tried his best to greet the audience in Irish, much to their delight. He spoke of his enjoyment of meeting his extended family, seeing the town where his great-great-grandfather came from, and the taste of a good pint of Guinness; I can only imagine how much Guinness paid for that photo op. The themes of his speech were of the many bonds between America and Ireland, their shared histories, and having the courage and determination to go on in the face of difficult obstacles, economic or otherwise. Obama’s speech was very sensationalist and repeated itself a bit much, but the heart of it was very true and dear. Focusing on the fact that so many Americans have Irish roots, that came from times of economic troubles, and that so many of these Americans try to trace these roots of theirs, he emphasized the important immigrant history of America, as well as Ireland’s role in producing so much from such a small island in its emigrated peoples; the great-great-grandson of a poor shoemaker had become the president of the United States after all. He finished his speech with a declaration that if things seemed impossible to reinforce oneself with the mantra, “Is Feidir Linn” in Irish, or in English, “Yes We Can.”
Obama’s speech may not have changed any of my personal feelings for him or touched any deeply personal chords, as it did for a few of my friends in attendance, the event itself did have quite the impact. Having never seen a president of ours before, that alone was pretty exciting, but seeing the president in a foreign country, one that I was studying and living in, made it an entirely different experience. Even though Ireland is obviously an English speaking country and is like America in so many ways, the little differences begin to add up over time that create something of a foreign or outsider feel to life here. While Dublin has been home to me, Obama’s visit has reminded me that I am American, and that my time here has given me roots in Ireland, even if those roots do not come in the form of bloodlines. The story of my seeing the president in Ireland is one that I know I will look forward to telling over and over as I grow older, and telling it as part of the greater story of my time and life here in Dublin and Ireland.