I gave my ticket to the bus driver. “Ahh,” he said, “you’re off to see oul’ Barack”.
I wasn’t, however, heading for Washington, rather I was about to chug down the N7 to the village of Moneygall in County Offaly in the heart of Ireland. It was from there in 1850 that the immaculately named Falmouth Kearney emigrated to the US, where he would eventually and posthumously become great-great-great grandfather to Barack Obama.
It’s not a big village, it’s not a particularly picturesque village, but from nearly every window hung the stars and stripes, and a huge roadside picture of the new US president greeted all vehicles as they approached.
I was there to participate in a live outside broadcast for RTE radio from Ollie Hayes’s pub which is in effect the beating heart of Moneygall. Inside, there were American flags and pictures of Obama everywhere. Someone had even produced ‘Brack Obama’, brack being an Irish cake served with butter accompanied by a cup of tea. A 150-room Barack Obama Hotel is in the pipeline, should the President ever decide to revisit his Irish roots as his predecessor John F Kennedy did in Wexford. A visitor and heritage centre is also being planned for the little village. With the Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen also an Offaly man, the county finds itself at the epicentre of global affairs. Indeed, one of the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence was from Offaly too.
Offaly is an oft-overlooked part of Ireland. There are probably people who think it’s the name of one of Sarah Palin’s children. But a brief rummage into the history of the place threw up a couple of pearlers. In 1785, for example, a Charles Bury inherited the estate of Tullamore and staged a massive celebration. The centrepiece was the propulsion skyward of a hot air balloon. Unfortunately, on its way up the balloon snagged on a chimney and exploded, burning down almost the entire town. I wonder how long it took the spectators to realise that this wasn’t part of the show, and whether they continued going ‘ooh!’ and eating jacket potatoes until the place was practically in ruins.
In Birr, which purportedly contains the exact geographical centre of Ireland, the Earls of Rosse proved particularly ingenious. The third earl built a telescope that was for seventy years after its construction the largest in the world. It was even mentioned in a Jules Verne novel. His heir, the fourth earl, harnessed the power of a waterfall in the grounds of Birr Castle, attaching it to a turbine to make Birr the first town in the world to be lit by electricity. That’s why I’ll never be rich and famous – I would have looked at the waterfall and said, “well, isn’t that lovely”. The fourth earl looked at it and said, “hmm, I wonder if I could light an entire town with that?”.
The third earl also experimented with early steam-driven vehicles, but alas in 1869 his cousin Mary was thrown from one of his contraptions and killed, thus making Offaly the site of both Ireland’s first aviation disaster and first motoring fatality.
The brack, by the way, was delicious.