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Sunday 20 March 2011

Obama has 40 million reasons to visit here

Don't be too chuffed by president's visit, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards -- and please don't ask him what he thinks of us

PLEASE, please, please, don't let us make eejits of ourselves when President Obama comes to Ireland. Let us be welcoming, yes, but let us not behave like 1950s nuns over-excited by the arrival of a cardinal or -- for we are modern -- hormonally-challenged fans of Justin Bieber.

We are maturing as a nation. Let us face facts. Barack Obama is calling by Ireland because he's running for election in 2012 and around 40 million Americans think they have Irish connections.

We were naive when John F Kennedy visited in 1963 and easily convinced he had come because he wanted to see us and not because he was facing a tight election in 1964. We had swallowed all the guff about the fairy-tale marriage and the devotion to the faith, so how could we not love a handsome, charismatic Catholic with a great-grandfather called Patrick Kennedy from Dunganstown in County Wexford? The mawkish coverage of the visit to the ancestral home was truly cringe-making: the awfulness of his murder a few months later enshrined him in our consciousness as a martyred son of Erin.

Admittedly, we didn't know in those days of the sexual decadence of the Kennedys (we wouldn't have much minded the bootlegging and political corruption), but even so, when in 1965 Galway Cathedral was consecrated by Boston's Cardinal Cushing, those who had not taken leave of their senses were staggered that the Chapel of the Resurrection sported a mosaic of John F Kennedy with hands clasped in prayer. The ghastly Bishop Michael Browne -- defender of the Fethard-on-Sea boycott -- had Patrick Pearse in there to keep him company.

What with all other political Kennedys hyping their Irishness, Richard Nixon dropping-by on the election trail in the Seventies could not win our hearts. By then we were convinced that the guys in the white hats were Democrats, so although Nixon graciously complimented us on the humour, spirit and courage the Irish had contributed to the American melting-pot, we did not warm to him. He was short on charm and looks and a visit to an ancestral burial ground near Timahoe, in County Kildare, merely drew attention to his Quaker background. Besides, we had been rooting for Ted Kennedy until the bad publicity surrounding the death of Mary Jo Kopechne did for his chances of the Democratic nomination. We have still not quite got over our sad habit of Kennedy-worship.

So all the charm in the world couldn't make us love Republican Ronald Reagan, whose foreign policy in any case perturbed our intellectual elite. He was, of course, warmly greeted in June 1984, a few months before his re-election, by the few hundred inhabitants of Ballyporeen in County Tipperary -- birthplace of his great- grandfather Michael Regan -- who duly turned the village into a monument to Reagan kitsch. The Ronald Reagan pub hung on until 2005, when its fittings and signs travelled to the presidential library in California.

Try as he would, Bill Clinton couldn't come up with any Irish ancestry -- the necessary excuse for taking time out to go to Ireland. But he saw the importance of Irish-America, followed the Kennedy line to the mad extent of appointing Ted's unqualified sister as ambassador, took up the peace process and made himself indispensable. He told us we were wonderful, so nationalist Ireland loved him back and now he pops in and out of Ireland and Irish-America for his fix of uncritical adulation.

George W Bush had enough Irishness to justify a visit, but he knew it was pointless. The patronising rudeness he was shown in an interview by RTE's Carole Coleman before his brief visit to Dromoland Castle for an EU-US summit did not make him warm to our little island. "While our political leaders", she explained, "will welcome you, unfortunately the majority of our people will not. They are annoyed about the war in Iraq and about Abu Ghraib. Are you bothered by what Irish people think?' Being a polite man, he didn't say "Nope". But you can bet it's what he thought.

And now we have Obama, who is unsure whether he's a 64th or a 128th Irish -- but will almost certainly visit and thereby enrich Moneygall in Offaly which produced that grandfather with several greats attached. Obama doesn't care about Ireland. He doesn't care about the United Kingdom.

In fact he doesn't give a toss about Europe. He is swinging by not because he cares if it's a new dawn under Enda but because from his time climbing the greasy pole in Chicago, he knows how powerful is the Irish-American lobby and how necessary it was to answer their call to hit the Emerald Isle trail. I hope we will be polite and pleasant but conceal the begging bowl and maintain a bit of dignity.

And please, please, please, please, don't ask him what he thinks of us.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards