Ireland’s Obama mania

Posted on October 30, 2019


We had never heard of Moneygall, when setting out on a near 2 000km tour through Ireland last month. Which is hardly surprising, since most Irish people also seem unaware of this village a little more than 2km off the motorway between Limerick and Dublin.

After all, in a country almost everywhere redolent of the history, traditions and myths of 9 000 years of conquest, assimilation and resistance, this hamlet on the border of Tipperary and Offaly counties doesn’t feature. Nor has it made any impact on the fields of art, music and, especially, literature for which this island off the western shores of Britain is justly famous.

But we cannot get the thought of Moneygall out of our heads. All because this village, population 310 and boasting one church and two pubs, received a flurry of publicity eight years ago that resulted in a virtual name change.

The reason was a visit that year by the then president of the USA, Barrack Obama. His maternal great, great, great grandfather, Falmouth Kearney, the son of a Moneygall shoemaker, migrated to the USA in 1850.

“American presidents need to find Irish connections,” noted Joe, a friend in Kerry, pointing out that there are now “millions of American voters of Irish descent”. These are often people related to those who migrated to the USA in the 19th Century during a famine that some historians regard as the first modern genocide.

But the fuss and the fanfare of the Obama visit soon died down and Moneygall slipped again into relative obscurity. There, for most people. it remains, having been eclipsed, in the popular mind, by the name of Obama.

It was friends in Kerry who first suggested that we visit “Obama Plaza”. They had never been there, but knew that it lay just off Exit 23 on the motorway between Limerick and Dublin. No mention of Moneygall.

Having immersed ourselves in two weeks of Irish history, music and the scenic beauty of such areas as the aptly-named Wild Atlantic Way, we were intrigued: Obama Plaza as a tourist destination seemed oddly out of place.

So it was that we took Exit 23 as we headed for Dublin — to be greeted by bronze statures of hand-holding Barrack and Michelle Obama, set against a red and white Obama Plaza billboard. Beyond this, lay the plaza: a huge petrol station forecourt with large, separate parking areas of full of cars and tourist coaches.

We parked and walked through the serried ranks of petrol and diesel pumps, to enter, through large automatic glass doors, the copious façade of the restaurants and facilities centre. The doors hissed open to reveal two full-sized cut-out figures of Barrack and Michelle Obama opposite a donut stand where “Obama cookies” were on sale.

There was also a cut-out figure of Barrack Obama’s torso, dressed in a Kerry county football shirt, and an entire wall depicting the Obama arrival in the area. Pride of place in a row of slot machines was one that, for roughly R50 one could “mint an Obama commemorative coin”.

As we fled, driving down the single exit road, there was another billboard. It featured Barrack Obama holding aloft a glass of that ubiquitous stout, Guinness, alongside a sign: “Ollie Hayes bar — just 2 minutes ahead.”

Pat, a friend in Dublin who is a partner in a leading ad agency, agreed that what we had witnessed was an example of ostentatious vulgarity. However, he added with a shrug: “Everyone talks about it, so no matter what we think, you have to admit, it’s a masterpiece of marketing.”

Posted in: Reports abroad