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.
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 Ancestry.com published a St Patrick’s Day article announcing Obama had Irish roots.
The Ancestry.com 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.
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