Saturday, July 14, 2012

Why the Irish Love President Obama

Dingle Peninsula

When reading Harvey Gould’s delightful book, A Fierce Local: My Love Affair with Ireland, I thought of arriving on the west coast of Ireland in May 2011.

Our first stop was Ennis and the Poet’s Corner pub.  Stepping inside on that cold and rainy afternoon, we were embraced by the warmth of a fire and the enticing aroma of beef stew.

 “Slainte (to health),” said Ron when he delivered our pints.  As usual with my first sip of Guinness, I paused in reverence and felt happy to be surrounded by a roomful of Irish people, talking and laughing.

Then everything got quiet; conversations ceased, along with the music and even the clink of glasses.  You could have heard a splash of Guinness.

Everyone was staring at a TV with President Barack Obama on an outdoor stage in Dublin, flashing his million-dollar smile.  A crowd of 60,000 filled the streets.  People waved thousands of tiny U.S. flags and mothers carried babies with red, white and blue diapers.  Young women displayed stars-and-striped fingernails, and even teenaged boys looked awestruck by Obama.

Back at the Poet’s Corner, viewers gave the President their undivided attention.  To my surprise, they broke into applause at the end.

Poster, Storefront, County Clare
“Now there’s a speech,” said a red-faced man at the bar.  “He’s happy to be here, and the crowd loves him.”

“Yeah,” I said to Ron.  “If only he were that popular back home.”

Over and over during the next few weeks, people told us what Obama’s message meant to them and why they gave him Cead Mile Failte (100,000 welcomes).

The President admires the Irish and seems to understand them.  In Dublin he declared, “Never has a nation so small inspired so much in others.”  He spoke of their perseverance through centuries of poverty and oppression and the courage it took for many to leave everything they knew, bound for America with nothing but hope and determination to build a better life.

It didn’t hurt that one of those emigrants was his great-great-great-grandfather.  Early in his speech he said, “My name is Barack Obama, of the Moneygall Obamas, and I’ve come home to find the apostrophe we lost somewhere along the way.” (Irish Daily Mail, 5/24/11)  The crowd roared their approval.

Everywhere we went, Irish people talked about the speech and recalled the details of his visit.  They liked the way he gulped his Guinness with the eagerness of a local.

Irish Daily Mail, 5/24/11

“Have you seen your President and Michelle in the pub?” a grocery clerk asked me.  “Oh, I’m sure he’s been behind a pint of Guinness.  Drained the lot of it.”

“And his wife?” said another.  “Went right behind the bar and pulled herself a pint.”

A young man chimed in.  “I thought he might just drive through the village in his limo.  But he got out of the car and stayed an hour talkin’, shook hands with everyone in Moneygall.”

“Probably related to all of 'em,” said the clerk.

Later on in Dingle I met a gentle woman in the library who struck up a conversation about President Obama.  “He knows what we’ve been through,” she said, “because his people have suffered as well.”

A man nearby whispered, ”I can’t believe he was elected in the first place.  It’s a fine thing, and sure it could only happen in America.”

“Perhaps that’s true,” I said, reflecting on the exhilaration felt around the world when Obama was elected.  Maybe the Irish and others want an image of America as a place of opportunity for all, regardless of class or origin.

One thing’s for sure: the Irish were proud of themselves for pulling off the presidential visit, followed by the Queen of England a week later.

O'Dowd's Pub, Roundstone
In a pub in Connemara, I overheard a conversation between a fisherman and a lovely young waitress.

“I can’t believe we pulled ‘em both off,” said the girl.

“Yeah, and nothing went wrong,” he replied.

“In Ireland of all places,” she said.

He shook his head and had a gulp of Guinness.

“Yup,” he said.  “By God, we did it.”


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