Feature

Ireland: Welcoming home President O’Bama

On his way to a Group of Eight meeting in Paris, Obama made a stopover in Ireland to visit the hometown of his mother’s great-great-grandfather.

Barack Obama is “one of us,” said Martina Devlin in the Irish Independent. On his way to a Group of Eight meeting in Paris, the U.S. president made a stopover in Ireland this week to visit Moneygall, the tiny hometown of his mother’s great-great-grandfather. Almost immediately, Obama’s inner Irishness burst forth. It wasn’t just his charm and humor, as he joked about reclaiming his family’s “lost apostrophe.” And it wasn’t just that he “showed a suitable reverence for the black stuff”—licking his lips over a pint of Guinness. It was more than that. As he stood in the main street of Moneygall, “the connection with place which defines Irish people seemed to flow through the president.” Obama mingled with his long-lost cousins, including one who had his prominent ears. He and his wife shook practically every hand in town. “Let no one be in any doubt: He has the JFK electricity.”

It was uplifting, said the Irish edition of the London Mirror in an editorial, “to watch the most powerful man in the world tell Ireland he was back home.” Our nation has been struggling under harsh economic austerity measures, imposed by the International Monetary Fund as a condition of our humiliating $100 billion bailout. Painful cuts in social spending have touched almost every Irish person. “If ever there was a time for an inspirational leader to bring us out of the wilderness of economic misery and into the light, then this was it.” And Obama delivered.

He may have charmed the Irish, but it was Americans he was really addressing, said The Irish Times. His speech to 25,000 cheering Irish youths in Dublin was inspiring. But the “remorseless optimism of the ‘yes we can’ mantra was as much about America’s own challenges” as it was about telling Ireland we can emerge from our economic disaster. And “in speaking of his newly found roots, he laid claim to the constituency of ‘Kennedy, Reagan, O’Neill, and Moynihan’ ahead of next year’s election.” Just a month after Obama laid to rest the racist birther conspiracy theory, by presenting his long-form birth certificate to prove he was born in Hawaii, not Kenya, his trip to Ireland underscores that he is half white and shares the heritage of millions of Irish-Americans.

Yet Ireland, too, has something to gain from embracing Obama’s Irishness, said Fintan O’Toole, also in The Irish Times. “There are lots of people who look a bit like Barack Obama but are as much Irish-American as the obvious Micks.” Yet Irish history has ignored them. In the 19th century, for example, the Rev. James Healy—a half-Irish, half-black priest—rose to become the bishop who inaugurated St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Long after his death, he was rediscovered as an African-American hero, but he has never been celebrated as an Irish hero. The children of Irish-black unions—of which there were many, particularly in New York City—were simply considered black. Irish America “had no place for them.” It’s time to reclaim this branch of the Irish family tree. Obama’s pedigree can serve to remind us “that ‘Irish’ is not a racial category.”

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