O'Bama Come Home: An Irish Village Welcomes Its Prodigal Son

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Stefan Wermuth / Reuters

A woman leaves a shop in Moneygall, Ireland, on May 16, 2011. An ancestor of U.S. President Obama emigrated from the village in the 1800s

As the residents of Moneygall ready themselves to play host to Barack Obama on May 23, many hope the visit will bring the Irish village exactly what the President's great-great-great-grandfather sought when he left the area 150 years ago: prosperity.

It takes less than a minute to drive through Obama's ancestral hometown, a sleepy and typical rural village whose main attractions are a single pub, a corner shop, a post office and an athletics field. But days before the President's arrival, the quiet that usually blankets the village is broken by the flapping of Stars and Stripes, the squeaking of fiddlers and the whirring of the advance security team's sleek cars. At Ollie Hayes' bar, the nerve center of the visit, local drinkers watch with fascination as international camera crews come and go and men in black suits discuss final details.

There is tension and excitement among the villagers, who are aware that the eyes of the world will soon be on their tight-knit community of 300. "When Obama announced on St. Patrick's Day that he was coming here, he didn't just say he was coming to Ireland or Europe but that he was coming to Moneygall," says Ollie Hayes with pride. Although the link between the leader of the free world and the blink-and-you'll-miss-it village came to light years ago, when Obama was a candidate in 2007, residents like the bar owner's nephew Billy Hayes still can't believe that the "most important man in the world" is about to visit.

Years ago, local Anglican rector Stephen Neill was central in finding proof of Obama's ancestry in parish records. "A shiver went down my spine when I saw what was in front of me," he says. A U.S. researcher from genealogy website Ancestry.com had linked Obama's mother to County Offaly and e-mailed Neill asking him to search the records. The rector discovered that the Kearney family was made up of cobblers who helped the poor during the Irish potato famine, which lasted from 1845 to 1852. In 1850, Falmouth Kearney — just 19 years old — made the difficult journey across the Atlantic to lay claim to land. Looking for a better life in the U.S., he left behind a country that was devastated by a famine that killed a million people and forced another million to emigrate. Kearney married and became a farmer in Indiana, raising seven children — including daughter Mary Anne, the great-grandmother of Obama's mother Stanley Dunham. Many U.S. Presidents have laid claim to Irish roots, including John F. Kennedy and Ronald Regan. But Obama's Irish connection makes him unique as the "first African-American-Irish President," Neill says.

Obama's distant cousin Henry Healy thinks the President owes his oration skills to his Irish ancestors. Healy, a local accountant who has taken on the role of family spokesman, still finds it "surreal" that he's related to the President of the United States. Healy will be one of the many distant relatives who will meet Obama during his short, low-key visit to the village (entry is restricted to locals and invited guests). Tens of thousands of others will hope to catch a glimpse of the President — who's greatly admired by many in Ireland — at a mass rally in Dublin that evening. Writing in the Irish Independent newspaper, Prime Minister Enda Kenny captured the high regard in which the President is held: Obama's visit "home" will be "a fulfillment of the American Dream. A dream, which, on his election, regained so much of its allure."

Healy describes the visit as an "escape hatch" from the perpetual bad-news story of Ireland's devastating financial crisis, which has left many in Moneygall jobless. The village, which used to be one of the main rest stops for travelers between the cities of Dublin and Limerick, was dealt another economic blow last December, when it was bypassed by a motorway. But local entrepreneurs hope the President's trip can reverse the downward trend. A souvenir shop selling Obama postcards, plaques and mugs has opened beside the site of the former home of his relatives. The post office has already seen a brisk trade in novelty gifts for curious Irish passersby. Young businessman Billy Hayes has opened a shop selling T-shirts with slogans such as "Obama's Irish Pub" and "What's the Craic, Barack?" — craic, which rhymes with Barack, being Irish slang for gossip. And then there's the multimillion-euro rest area being built on the outskirts of the village — developers are hoping to call it the Obama Plaza.

The recent cosmetic changes to the village in County Offaly have been dramatic, but Neill says the real change "is in the spirit of the people." Obama's visit has given them "self-belief" and the sense that they have something worthwhile to offer, which will "reap rewards into the future," he says. The President is expected to spend less than two hours in Moneygall as part of a one-day stopover in Ireland, but the brief return of a long-lost son will leave an imprint that could last for generations.