In May 2011, the small town of Moneygall in Co. Offaly was a hive of activity and the center of all Irish media attention as crowds descended on the Midlands town to witness US President Barack Obama sup on a pint of Guinness in the birthplace of his Irish ancestors.
Four years on, and the hordes of curious tourists have all but abandoned the small town’s streets in favor of the newly-built Obama Plaza rest stop just outside of the town.
"The Plaza is doing well and it's the biggest employer around – but the village itself is suffering," a young Moneygall mother tells the Irish Independent.
Although 112 people of Moneygall’s population of 300 are employed at the Plaza, within the town itself, The Obama Cafe closed down shortly after the opening of the Plaza, the pub where that well-photographed sup of Guinness took place sees just a few sets of travelers call in each day, and Obama's ancestral home has once again become a common rental residence.
In contrast, the year-old Obama Plaza sees up to a dozen tour buses stop by each day and the recent Fourth of July celebrations attracted 3,000 visitors.
The Irish Independent spoke to several American tourists visiting the rest stop who declared it "The best rest stop in the world!" or even going so far as to name it "Best rest stop ever!"
The rest stop with its Obama exhibition rooms, souvenirs and heavily-branded Obama premises has left little reason for tourists to travel into the town itself. As one woman puts it, the rest stop is now "the White House of the village and Moneygall is the avenue. But when you hit the White House before the avenue, there's no reason to go up the avenue".
The decline of Moneygall was already in progress, however, before the arrival of the Obama Plaza. Going the way of many rural towns in Ireland, main streets are steadily becoming quieter and quieter as Irish customers prefer to travel to larger supermarket chains instead of shopping within their own town.
Moneygall had also been hit with the building of a highway bypass around the town some years ago, but the discovery of the link to Obama and the attention the town received as a result compensated at first for the reduction in people driving through the town.
With the addition of the Obama Plaza, however, the town is now feeling the full force of its lack of passing trade.
"Moneygall was never a shopping village," Pat Bergin, owner of the main street’s grocery store and post office explained to the Irish Independent. He added that customers would always travel to the local towns of Nenagh or Roscrea to do a big shop and so the passing trade that was once their mainstay is now largely gone.
John Donovan, owner of the house that was discovered to be the former homestead of Moneygall shoemaker Falmouth Kearney, Obama's great-great-great-grandfather, believes that Moneygall is no different to any other area in modern-day rural Ireland.
Although, he wished to convert the ancestral home into a tourist attraction he admitted that it was "something I knew nothing about."
"Who would be responsible for it and who would run it?" he asked.
"If I charged going in the door, I'd have to provide a viable product” he says, explaining his decision to rent the property instead.
The man who holds much of the responsibility for bringing Obama to Moneygall in the first place, the President’s eighth cousin Henry Healy, also admits that the decline of Moneygall is typical for a rural Irish town where a lack of career opportunities results in young people moving to bigger towns, cities, or even emigrating.
"These realities were there before Obama's visit and they were there after," he says.
He does believe, however, that while the financial advantages may be somewhat fading, the community is stronger because of the attention it has received in the past few years.
Despite rumors that the President may return to Ireland for the last St. Patrick’s Day of his Presidency, Healy is not convinced that they will see Obama return to the town.
"But if he does come, Moneygall will be ready," vows Henry.
The Obama tourist business in Moneygall, Ireland started with hope and optimism but now is Sale or Lease. pic.twitter.com/s4XvQn4yBI— John Foley (@FoleyJohnP) August 3, 2015
Can anything be done to save rural Ireland and keep Irish towns and villages supported economically or is rural Ireland dead and gone? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
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