In Ireland, A Homecoming (Of Sorts) For Obama
President Obama is in Ireland on Monday kicking off a six-day European trip during which he will visit Buckingham Palace, address British Parliament, attend the Group of Eight summit in France and meet with Central European leaders in Poland.
First though, the president has some family business to attend to: As Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny explained on St. Patrick's Day, the land of O'Connells, O'Neills, and O'Donnells is also the land of O'Bamas.
"I can tell you that in the history of the English language, never has a single apostrophe meant so much to so many," he said to applause.
Obama's personal connection to Ireland is on his mother's side. It was discovered four years ago, when researchers traced Falmouth Kearney, his great-great-great grandfather, to the village of Moneygall in County Offaly. Kearney was a shoemaker's son who sailed to America in 1850.
Canon Stephen Neill found Kearney's family records at Templeharry Church, just outside Moneygall. He's been fielding questions about Falmouth's most famous descendent ever since.
"It's good fun, but it's pretty tiring," he says, chuckling.
Two months ago, on St. Patrick's Day, Obama announced his plans to visit Moneygall during this European trip. Neill says the village of 296 people has been tidying up in anticipation ever since.
"The whole town has been painted from one end of the village to the other. A ... paint company provided paint for the entire village," he said. "And that really created a great community spirit because everyone was out simultaneously painting their own houses.
"That was lovely. People have been putting up window boxes. There was a flag-raising where 50 Irish flags and 50 American flags were raised simultaneously up the street. All in all, the place is looking really very well, and I'm sure the president will be impressed when he comes."
Irish old-timers can recall when President Reagan paid a visit to his family's village, Ballyporeen, and the temporary lift that gave the town. Many in Moneygall would welcome a similar moment in the spotlight.
"It's given people something positive to think about. Like yourselves, we've been living through particularly dire economic circumstances," Neill said. "It's given people, I think, confidence in themselves. And that positivity is already reaping rewards in terms of business and tourism.
"I hope certainly in the future that will continue to be the case."
Ireland's recession was deeper than the U.S. downturn, and the Irish economy is only just now beginning to grow again. The country has also had to swallow tough austerity measures in exchange for a European bailout. But Michael Collins, the Irish ambassador to the U.S., says his country will rebound.
"We're very much open for business," he said. "Ireland is a country whose business relationship with the United States is of vital importance to us. And the president's visit gives us a real boost and a real opportunity to promote that."
From Ireland, Obama travels to the U.K., France and Poland, and at every stop he'll emphasize the important role he wants Europe to play in world affairs — whether battling the Taliban in Afghanistan or fostering democracy in Egypt and Tunisia. European leaders have sometimes felt neglected by the Obama administration, which has spent much of its diplomatic energy in Asia and the developing world.
Heather Conley, who directs the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says this trip is a chance for Obama to make amends.
"The irrational exuberance of Europe when President Obama was inaugurated has now met, 21/2 years later, with a daunting list of domestic challenges, international challenges," she said. "And we have to understand how this relationship is going to work within that complexity."
Many of those tough questions can wait, though, until later in the week. Obama's focus Monday is Ireland. He's giving an outdoor speech in Dublin on Monday night, alongside the Irish music group Snow Patrol. Aides say Obama will be celebrating the unique ties between the U.S. and Ireland, fostered in part by 35 million Irish-Americans, one of whom lives in the White House. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.