Moneygall, County Offaly, is on the way to lots of places but has never been much of a destination. This small Irish village on the road from Dublin to the south-western city of Limerick is a blink-and-you-miss-it type of spot. Recently bypassed by a new motorway, the flow of traffic that used to pass through its main street from dawn till dusk has now ebbed to a trickle.
But later this month this hamlet in the heart of rural Ireland will have its moment of fame. On May 23, Barack Obama is due to make a flying visit to Moneygall to pay his respects to his Irish ancestry. For in the furore over his Hawaiian birth certificate, what many may have missed is that the president is – in small part at least – Irish. Genealogical research carried out the year before his election found Obama, or O’Bama as he has become known in these parts, is the great, great, great grandson of Fulmuth Kearney, who hailed from a family of Moneygall cobblers and emigrated to America in the 1850s.
Today, with the presidential cavalcade almost in sight, excitement in the village, which counts fewer than 300 residents, is palpable. Pavements are being resurfaced, flowers are being planted and all the houses have been given a fresh lick of paint (thanks to a masterful publicity stunt from Dulux). In the window of the local newsagents a large sign proclaims, “Obama Abu”, which roughly translates from the Gaelic as “Hurrah Obama”.
Three quarters of the way down Main Street is the Kearney ancestral home, a modest two-storey terraced house that replaced the original thatched cottage. Outside on the pavement a shiny new sign explains the Obama connection with the region and the Kearney family tree. Across the road is the small school attended by Fulmuth Kearney that is now a private home.
A few doors down is Ollie Hayes’ pub, which has become something of a focus for the mounting Obamamania. When I arrive in town, landlord Hayes is posing outside with his three-year-old daughter Katie for some American newspaper photographers, Irish, American and European Union flags fluttering above his head. “I’m trying to keep my feet on the ground, but I’m very excited,” he tells me between snaps.
In the front bar, an elderly couple are lunching on soup and sandwiches and, but for a bronze bust of Obama sitting on the counter and a journalist tapping on her laptop, you could be in a pub anywhere in the Irish Republic. Following several visits from scores of CIA and White House security staff, it is widely assumed, and hoped, that Obama will also be dropping in to the pub for the obligatory pint of Guinness photocall. “We are living history,” says Ollie’s wife, Majella.
Driving out to the 200-year-old Templeharry Church, whose parish records revealed the extraordinary link with the White House, you begin to get a sense of this bucolic fragment of Ireland, somewhere all but overlooked by tourists. It may not boast the breathtaking ruggedness of County Kerry’s mountains or the dramatic, Atlantic bashed coast of its western extremities but the region is home to a velvety, undulating landscape dotted with historic towns, ancient castles and towers.
Less than 20 miles up the road towards Dublin, I am standing amid the more presidential surroundings of the Wellesley-Pole Suite of the Ballyfin hotel, a magnificent Regency mansion set in rolling parkland. Through the window there are views of a cascade tumbling from a small classical temple down a long flight of steps, the water glinting in the early May sunshine.
By chance, Obama’s visit coincides with the opening of this palatial hotel, a second event that locals hope might put this area of Ireland on the map. Serendipitously, the hotel is the brainchild of another American, indeed another Chicagoan, Fred Krehbiel, and his Irish-born wife Kay.
They had toured the country seeking out a suitable property before settling on Ballyfin. Built in the 1820s for Sir Charles Coote, for much of the past century the house was a boarding school. Now, after a 10-year restoration project, it has been returned to its original opulence (with added indoor swimming pool and treatment room). The Cootes were not afraid to spend their money, as the gilded ceiling of one of the house’s most impressive rooms, the aptly named Gold Drawing Room, testifies.
With just 13 bedrooms and two suites, Ballyfin can still feel more like a stately home than a hotel. It is possible to dine in splendour in the State Dining Room, or spend an afternoon curled up with a book in the 70ft long library with roaring fires at either end. From the library, you can venture, Alice in Wonderland-like, through a secret door into a beautifully restored 19th-century wrought-iron conservatory, which is the perfect place to contemplate the clouds rolling in on a soft Irish day.
The Celtic Tiger years brought golf courses and ill-conceived modern wings to the grounds of many an Irish stately home and castle. It’s almost a relief to discover that at Ballyfin there are 600 acres of uninterrupted parkland and gardens, laid out by Sir Edwin Lutyens, waiting to be explored on foot or by bike. During my stay, dappled sunlight shone through the majestic woodlands of beech, oak and horse chestnut that were awash with bluebells. Lionel, one of the butlers, can also take guests out for a leisurely turn in a rowing boat or fishing for pike.
Even for those without the budget for Ballyfin (which costs at least €950 a night), the area has much to offer. Just beyond the hotel gates are the Slieve Bloom mountains, an expanse of heather flecked hills criss-crossed with miles of hiking trails. Encircling the mountains is a necklace of nine small towns and villages that can be explored by car or bike, while just to the west is one of Ireland’s best kept secrets, the charming town of Birr.
Full of elegant Georgian architecture, the town is also home to Birr Castle, the family seat of the Earls of Rosse, which has 120 acres of glorious gardens. A few miles to the east of the moutains, just outside the town of Portlaoise, is one of Ireland’s lesser-known but most significant archaeological sites, the ghostly remnants of the Rock of Dunamase – a 150ft outcrop crowned with the ancient, shattered remains of a large castle and fortress. Emo Court, another impressive neoclassical pile open to the public, is close by. All are very rewarding and largely overlooked by visitors in a hurry to get to Ireland’s better-known attractions.
But perhaps this year, thanks to two men from Chicago, Ireland’s undiscovered heart might finally start to get the attention it deserves.
Ballyfin (www.ballyfin.com) has double rooms from €950 per night, full board.