Barack Obama Plaza? The Curious Tale of How an Irish Rest Stop Was Named After a US President

The Curious Tale of How an Irish Rest Stop Was Named After a US President

Cruising down the motorway between Dublin and Limerick, I am reminded of the building boom that overtook Ireland during the Celtic Tiger years. Before the millennium, a wide divided highway like this simply did not exist in Ireland.

Somewhere near Kildare, the stand of modern industrial parks and high embankment walls lining the road give way to views of the Irish countryside. The scene beyond the highway presents an idyllic collection of rolling, green hills complete with sheep and cows. Without a scenic pull-off to snap a photo, I speed forward where signs welcome me to County Laois, then Tipperary, then Offaly, then Tipperary again. After I’m welcomed to Offaly one more time, a large sign built onto a wagon announces, “Now Open. Barrack Obama Plaza… food, petrol, wifi, and toilets.”

As an American who keeps one foot on Irish soil for a quarter of the year, I’m a little confused seeing a rest stop bearing the name of an acting US president on an Irish motorway. I can’t say I’ve seen anything like it in my travels of the USA.

As my car rolls off the exit, a shiny island of buildings and awnings surrounded by blacktop come into view. A new, diamond-shaped sign resembling the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” billboard towers over the busy scene. Vehicles crowd every meter in the front car park. In the back car park, all the parking slots near the building are also occupied. A car pulls out ahead of me, and I squeeze into their space. Walking toward the building, I’m forced to slide between cars lining up for the drive-thru window. There’s no denying it; people are pulling off the motorway for this refueling stop.

In addition to the lines of gas/petrol pumps outside, the inside stocks a convenience store, sandwich shop, Supermac’s fast food joint serving Papa John’s Pizza, and a Tim Horton’s coffee stand. Outside, two Irish twenty-somethings pose in front of an old Cadillac inked with giant Supermac’s and Papa John’s Pizza logos and an “Obama1” license plate. Looking around I wonder if the people here have arrived out of pure curiosity or was it the lure of food, petrol, wifi, and toilets.

The Backstory

To find out why Ireland would name a travel oasis after Barack Obama, we need to look back a few years. In March of 2007 Barack Obama was emerging as the Democratic Party candidate for US President, and the public relations machine at published a St Patrick’s Day article announcing Obama had Irish roots.

The story was light on details. The name Falmouth Kearney emerged with tidbits on his life after arriving in the United States in 1850, but information about his Irish origin hadn’t been documented yet. A few months later, genealogist Megan Smolenyak on the US side and Canon Stephen Neill on the Irish side made the connection to a parish in Moneygall, County Offaly.

The Rise of Moneygall

During Ireland’s boom years, Moneygall didn’t catch many breaks. The tiny town was known only as a pass-through village on the national road, the N7, linking Limerick and Dublin. During peak times, the heavy traffic made crossing the main street in Moneygall a bit like a dangerous game of dodgeball. After Ireland faced its economic crash, a new stretch of the M7 motorway opened and bypassed the town altogether. Without the traffic, the town was left looking unkempt and vacant.

In the months leading to the 2008 US elections, the village of Moneygall with a population of 298 caught the media’s attention by publicly backing Obama. Ollie Hayes’ pub on main street opened its doors to reporters covering the election; and within a few weeks, the quiet town became a household name in Ireland.

News of Moneygall reached Obama; and after winning the Iowa caucus in January 2008, the candidate was quoted, “There’s a little village in Ireland where my great-great-great-great grandfather came from… I’m looking forward to going there and having a pint.” The residents of Moneygall were thrilled with the mention, and a Limerick-based band, The Corrigan Brothers, recorded a light-hearted tune called “There’s No One as Irish as Barack Obama.”

After the election in November 2008, then-Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Brian Cowan, an Offaly native, invited the president-elect to visit Ireland. Meanwhile, Moneygall native Henry Healy came forward as Obama’s eighth cousin garnering him the title “Henry the Eighth” among locals. Healy became the public face of Moneygall’s bid for a presidential visit; and he and Canon Stephen Neill attended Obama’s inauguration in January 2009.

Continuing a St Patrick’s Day tradition, Obama welcomed the new Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny to the White House in 2011. At the meeting he announced plans to visit Ireland later that year. News emerged that the president would indeed be visiting Moneygall.

In preparation for the visit, Irish paint maker Dulux donated a fresh coat of paint for every building in Moneygall. Major cleanup efforts and flower boxes transformed Moneygall into a Irish Tidy Town contender. On May 23rd 2011, President Obama and his wife Michelle arrived in Moneygall, visited the Kearney ancestral home, and drank pints in Ollie Hayes’ bar.

Since then, the ancestral home welcomes visitors; the Obama Café serves food and Obama trinkets; and the town hosts the Moneygall American Festival over the 4th of July.

The Travel Plaza

In 2013, the owners of Irish fast food chain Supermac’s, announced they would open a €6 million ($8 million) travel plaza between Limerick and Dublin. From the very first announcement, the location was Moneygall and the name was “Barack Obama Plaza.”

On May 28, 2014, the plaza opened to the public; and Henry Healy, aka Henry the Eighth, was named the plaza manager. While press releases stated there would be exhibits covering Irish-American heritage, no evidence of these displays were present when I visited the facility on June 8, 2014… and there was no sign of the lifesize, bronze statues of Barack and Michelle Obama that were in earlier plans.

Things for the Irish to Know

Members of either of the two main political parties in the United States are likely to maintain strong loyalty to their party. Therefore, a portion of the US population will find the naming of the Barack Obama Plaza a great honor. Meanwhile, another section of the population will find the theme ridiculous, even offensive.

It is likely that a handful of Americans will in fact go out of their way to avoid places associated with a political figure such as Democrat Barrack Obama or his predecessor Republican George W. Bush. In fact, tour operators have found it common for a portion of US tourists to stay on the bus in modest protest if their tour stops in Moneygall.

It can also be noted that most rest areas and travel plazas in the US are maintained at the state rather than national level. Therefore, when named after individuals, such facilities usually honor notable citizens within a state; naming such a facility after a US president, especially someone still serving their term, may appear unusual or even belittling to the Office of the President.

Things for Americans to Know

In general, the Irish hold the Office of the President of the United States in high regard. Therefore, regardless of a president’s party or politics, the Irish have a history of honoring American presidents with Irish roots. There is a sense of pride knowing the offspring of someone who emigrated from Ireland could rise to such a notable position.

The ancestral towns of presidents George W. Bush and George H. W Bush (Rathfriland, Co Down), Ronald Regan (Ballyporeen, Co Tipperary), John F. Kennedy (Dunganstown, Co Wexford), Woodrow Wilson (Dergalt, Co Tyrone), Theodore Roosevelt (Glenoe, Co Antrim), William McKinley (Conagher, Co Antrim), Chester Arthur (Dreen, Co Antrim), Ulysses S. Grant (Dergenagh, Co Tyrone), Andrew Johnson (Mounthill, Co Antrim), James Buchanan (Deroran, Co Tyrone), Andrew Jackson (Boneybefore, Co Antrim) are among the places in Ireland and Northern Ireland that celebrate ancestral ties to American Presidents.

Most Irish who travel the route welcome the opening of the plaza. Until this point, a convenient all-in-one stop for travelers hasn’t been available in the area.

Although the naming of the Barack Obama Plaza may temporarily appeal to Irish curiosity, most Irish citizens will be stopping for the convenience rather than any ties to Barack Obama. Because Moneygall has nearly become synonymous with Obama in Ireland, the naming doesn’t come as a surprise.

UPDATE May 2017:

The Plaza is as busy as ever. However, things have gone quiet again in Moneygall village. The Obama Café has closed; and the Kearney ancestral home opened for visitors for a short time, but those have stopped as well. The “American Festival” has gone from a three day affair to a one-day Country Music festival held on the July Bank Holiday Weekend (which is lands right around the 4th of July)… however, I haven’t seen any announcements for the festival this year.

As usual, your comments are welcome below… But please ADD TO THE CONVERSATION and BE NICE.


Author: Corey

Share This Post On


  1. It’s never wise to name anything in honor of a living person who has the ability to make a mockery of and embarrassment for the well meaning folks who honored them.

    Too many people have started well and ended poorly.

    Post a Reply
    • Mr. Hussein got off to a ‘good’ start, receiving the Nobel Price for peace, what with Guantanamo Bay, drone-strikes against civilians and what-not – seems like the Jews got a fully functioning puppet there. So, I have to agree with you Suzette, the whole hulla-balloo regarding this <> might very well end up making ‘a mockery of and embarrassment for the well meaning folks who honored them.’ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

      Post a Reply
      • The former President’s name is Mr. Obama.

        Post a Reply
  2. How interesting!! We’re Americans who visited Ireland for the first time in May 2011 and we missed seeing Obama in Dublin by just a few days. We watched his speech in a pub in Killarney and it was so interesting to see so many citizens from another country interested in our president. Very unique experience!

    Post a Reply
  3. We haven’t seen many actual, what we call rest stops in America in Ireland. There was one we stopped at last year, but I can’t remember where. The North, maybe. Other than that, mainly just getting off in towns for petrol, food, and toilets.
    Being Americans, we’d probably just stop at this one for the “cheese factor”, but really, if there’s a toilet and somewhere to buy a snack for the road, what’s in a name?

    Post a Reply
  4. Not a big fan of the marquee on the Supermac! Wondering if the Irish ancestry of Barack Obama is on the maternal side. Very little about his white mother is publicly known

    Post a Reply
    • A good bit is known about Dr. Ann Dunham Ph.D. as she was prominent in her field and a pioneer in bringing microcredit programs to developing countries. The University of Hawaii has held an symposium on her work, her dissertation has been published by Duke University Press, and her biography came out in 2011.

      Post a Reply
  5. Just stopped at Barack Obama Plaza. Ironic that there is a Papa John’s Pizza there given that the founder of Papa John’s was a very outspoken critic of President Obama.
    I always wonder why people like Mr. Kamov have to bother to post their insulting messages in a forum like this. I’m thinking that a large majority of Americans (& Irish people) would like to have Obama back in that office right now.

    Post a Reply
    • not a chance. And I thought his “real name” was “‘little barrie’ Soetoro. ” Funny how even a simplest of details are sketchy and largely unverifiable.

      Post a Reply


  1. Hello World! | driveawaywithme - […] People on trains in Europe would ask me if Americans blew up as many cars as they do in…
  2. “Oh, here’s Lord Voldemort’s grave” | UFIC Blog from Abroad - […] There’s a rest stop named after him in a town where he’s known to have Irish heritage ( Flash…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

The Irish Fireside E-Newsletter features articles and links relating to Irish travel, storytelling, and culture.

* indicates required

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This