On Wednesday morning, May 25, 2011, I boarded a plane at Dublin Airport heading for Newark New Jersey. It occurred to me, while I was 35,000 feet in the air, that the adventure I had just had in Ireland was so extraordinary that it really needed to be shared with the anyone who would listen.
Not just for my own glorification, but because it deals with a real historical event, and a new bond between two great nations ... Ireland and America.
So here goes.
I received an email from Henry Healy on March 23 that President Barack Obama was coming to his town of Moneygall in May. And Henry (President Obama's distant cousin AKA Henry the 8th) was inviting me to take part in this celebration.
When I read the message on my computer in Baltimore, I almost fell off of my chair. Moneygall is a tiny hamlet in County Offaly, Ireland. And Barack Obama's maternal roots can be traced back to this town.
First of all, here's the back story that needs to be revealed. In 2008, I had read in an Irish American newspaper that Henry was related to the President. I was so curious that I found Moneygall on a map and realized it was a town I passed through on many occasions as I travelled to Kerry to see my own cousins. (My paternal grandparents were both born in County Kerry).
So that summer I stopped in Moneygall and met with Henry and his family. His mother immediately “put the kettle on” and we were instant friends. I photographed the town and Henry and when I got back to the U.S. I called my friend Stella O'Leary, leader of the Irish American Democrats.
Stella in turn contacted Henry and this led eventually to his participation at an Inauguration party at the Phoenix Park Hotel in D.C. in January of 2009. (I also attended the party there that night, where I would meet up with Henry again.)
Anyway, Henry invited me and secured a special ticket for me (cleared by the Secret Service I suspect) which permitted me to enter Moneygall on Monday, May 23 when the President was to come. Just for the record, I also had to get domestic clearance from my wife Paula to attend this momentous event. I was delighted. So off to Dublin Airport I went.......landed on Sunday May 22......rented a car........bought an Irish cell phone.......and drove down the M7 to Moneygall. This part of the drill, I was already familiar with.
Once there, I met Henry, obtained the ticket (that will never be sold on eBay), and proceeded to record the rest of the experience with my camera. I captured images of the following: lovely painted houses, shopkeepers, musicians, facades of stores, and signs regarding President Obama's visit.
It was all such a smorgasbord of great subject matter for this photographer. Two women in the town organized a B&B for me in Nenagh, a short drive from Moneygall. The next day, I had to leave my car outside the town.......pass through a metal detector........and then was directed by the very polite garda (Irish police) to walk into the town and stay behind the temporary metal barrier. The huge vehicle that the President arrived in, parked directly in front of the area I was standing in. You talk about the luck of the Irish!
When I saw the First Lady emerge from the van and standing on the street in Moneygall, I thought I was watching a movie, but I reasoned with myself that this was really happening.
The Obamas went first to meet Henry and other Irish dignitaries standing on the opposite side and had some conversation with them there. Then to everyone's amazement the President and Michelle Obama turned around and walked directly towards the crowd I was standing with.
I will say it again ... they walked directly towards the crowd I was standing with. Then without hesitation they shook the hands of everyone, including mine. Surely I must be dreaming. And as Henry suggested in the March email I started “snapping away” with my Canon Rebel.
If I hadn't taken their photographs, I would have never believed I was there. Later that day while sitting in the restaurant at Dooly's Hotel in the town of Birr, I watched on television as Mr. Obama gave an eloquent speech to 40,000 people in Dublin. Ok, that did it; the people of Ireland fell in love with our President! What a day! What a great celebration!
The following thought came to me as I was flying back to America: I was very young when President Kennedy went to Wexford in June 1963 and working as a teacher when Ronald Reagan visited Tipperary in June 1984; so I made sure I was there in Moneygall the day Barack Obama came to Offaly.
The strange thing is, I live only 50 miles from his house in Washington D.C., but I got to shake his hand in Ireland. What a funny world. What a wonderful world.