x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Obama tells Irish: 'Can we overcome our problems? Is féidir linn' - yes we can

US president speaks in Dublin of the shared heritage and resilience of Irish and Americans, and of his faith that both would surmount their current economic difficulties.

DUBLIN // Monarchies come and go, governments rise and fall, the economy booms then implodes again spectacularly, but Ireland is an old country, and some things never change.

It is written that whenever anyone famous visits this green island, at some point they will be presented with a pint of Guinness and a phalanx of camera lenses.

For US president Barack Obama the moment came on the afternoon of his one-day bilateral visit to Ireland yesterday, in the tiny village from which his maternal great-great-great-grandfather, Fulmouth Kearney, emigrated to the US in 1850.

"So what do we do while it settles?" he bantered, as Ollie Hayes went through the fussy steps of pouring a perfect pint in his bar in Moneygall. "Now, I have been told that it makes a difference who the person behind the bar is – that people are very particular about who is pouring their Guinness."

He turned to the barroom, crowded with ecstatic long-lost distant relatives. "Can people vouch for this guy?"

Cue laughter and applause, but there was underlying tension: how would the first couple fare? The Queen of the UK, making her historic first visit to the breakaway Irish republic last week, had merely smiled at her Guinness then moved away, preventing a visibly thirsty Prince Phillip from downing it himself.

"Sláinte!" the president announced - to your health - then took a good inch off the top of his pint with his first mouthful. Careful observers noted that the first lady, Michelle Obama, put away twice as much with hers.

She must have needed it. Arriving by helicopter in their light summer clothes, the Obamas were met by 3,000 rapturous locals and a full-on North Atlantic storm, with winds gusting up to 100kph and vicious squalls of rain.

Undeterred, the first couple dived straight towards the barriers holding back the crowd, pressing flesh, kissing old ladies, even taking temporary custody of two babies.

For Mr Obama this first official visit to his maternal ancestral homeland - the link was confirmed by genealogists in 2007 - will be followed by a full state visit to Britain, the G8 summit in Deauville, France, and an important security meeting in Poland.

Ireland was meant to be the fun part of the trip. As the president joked in Hayes's pub, feigning suspicion, "How much has our [security] staff been in here? How much advance work did they do here?"

Ireland has, though, a very serious problem in the form of a massive sovereign debt crisis, worth up to a quarter of a trillion euros, caused by the collapse of a property bubble, and by the European Union's insistence that Irish taxpayers should make good the resulting losses of domestic and European banks.

Mr Obama followed his courtesy call on Irish head of state, President Mary McAleese, with private talks with the prime minister, Mr Enda Kenny.

In comments afterwards, he seemed to offer at least moral support. "What I emphasised is that we want to continue to strengthen the bonds of trade and commerce between our two countries and that we are rooting for Ireland's success and we'll do everything we can to help on the path to recovery." He also paid tribute to the work of Irish people in peacekeeping and in promoting human rights around the world.

"I just wanted to express to the Irish people how inspired we have been by the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland.

"It speaks to the possibility of peace and people in long-standing struggles being able to re-imagine their relationships."

Later that day he addressed a packed open-air gathering in Dublin's College Green, which gave him a welcome that must have reminded him of his inauguration.

In a rousing introduction, Mr Kenny said of his guest: "He doesn't talk about the American dream. He is the American dream."

Mr Obama's address dwelled on the shared heritage and resilience of Irish and Americans, and of his faith that both would surmount their current economic difficulties. "Is féidir linn," he concluded - Irish for "yes we can".

The presidential party was due to stay in Dublin last night and travel to Britain today.

However, the party was expected to leave earlier than scheduled because of a change in direction of the volcanic ash cloud that came from the erupting volcano in Iceland, the White House said last night.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae