Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 30 October 2014

From Kennedy to Barack - Ireland enchanted by charismatic Obama

US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama meet members of the public in College Green, Dublin
US President Barack Obama gives a speech in College Green, Dublin, during his visit to Ireland at the start of a week-long tour of Europe. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday May 23, 2011. See PA story IRISH Obama. Photo credit should read: Paul Faith/PA Wire
Joan Crecca kisses a life size cutout of presidential candidate John McCain at the Republican election party in Bellevue, Wash on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008. Crecca's husband Joe was a POW in Viet Nam at the same time as McCain. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

US President Barack Obama defied his strict security schedule to extend his electrifying Irish ancestral homecoming.

In scenes evoking the 1963 visit of John F Kennedy, Mr Obama sparked a frenzy by breaking away from his entourage to embrace many of the hundreds who lined Moneygall's single street.

Along with his wife Michelle, he stunned ecstatic well-wishers - who were warned there would be no walkabout - to clasp hands, sign autographs and pose for pictures.

Babies were passed over heads and crowd control barriers to father-of-two Mr Obama, who showed his natural parenting skills by instinctively hugging and gently rocking the children.

His easy manner was on display too in Ollie Hayes' pub - one of only two bars in the village his great-great-great-grandfather Fulmouth Kearney left for New York in 1850.

The president embraced distant relatives - including eighth cousin Henry Healy, and members of the Donovan and Benn families - before buying a round of drinks.

Waiting for his Guinness to settle, the world's most powerful man slapped down a note on the bar. "I just want you to know the president pays his bar tab," he said.

Mr Obama touched down at the local Gaelic games field in the Marine One helicopter as scheduled around 3pm, despite worries that heavy wind and rain would delay the hotly anticipated arrival.

Cheers erupted at the sight of the presidential motorcade streaming into the tiny village, and the Obamas made a beeline to hug Mr Healy as soon as they got out of their car.

The 26-year-old plumbing firm accounts manager - nicknamed Henry IV - is credited with pulling off the unlikely coup by inviting the president to come and see his ancestral birthplace after the links were discovered four years ago.

After visiting a house on the site where Mr Kearney lived, Mr Obama moved out of the rain into the pub where he spent almost half an hour delighting those lucky enough to get inside.

Local Church of Ireland vicar Canon Stephen Neill, who uncovered records in the home of an elderly parishioner in 2008 proving Mr Obama's connection to the village - population 300 - showed the famous visitor the documents.

Once they had posed for photographs, the president said: "And with that, let me have a pint."

In typical Irish pub fashion, one punter shouted back: "Yes, we can."

Taking time for his stout to settle - and a glass of the black stuff for the First Lady - Mr Obama told drinkers about his first pint, at Shannon Airport on his way to Afghanistan.

"It was the middle of the night, and I tried one of these and I realised it tastes so much better here than in the United States," he told his enthralled audience. "You're keeping all the best stuff here."

With that he delivered the traditional Irish salute "Slainte" and took a big swig to the delight of onlookers.

Not to be outdone by her husband, Ms Obama joined in the bar room banter, with a jibe about the advance security taking advantage of the hospitality.

"I just have one question: How often have our staff been in here?" she joked.

The president reeled off the names of several members of staff, drawing jeers and laughter from the packed pub.

After leaving, the president again worked the length of the ropeline, accepting kisses and embraces, before rolling out of town at almost 4.30pm.

Again in true Irish style, the schedule was cast aside: they had stayed an hour and a half, twice as long as planned.

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