Obama in Ireland: Villagers ready to greet US president

Willie Jones
Image caption Willie Jones is guarding his ticket to see Obama with his life

Residents of a small Irish village are getting ready to welcome Barack Obama, and clinging tightly to their "golden tickets" to see the US president.

People living in Moneygall queued for up to six hours to get their hands on one of the special invitations.

The president's great, great, great-grandfather - Fulmouth Kearney - came from the County Offaly village, before emigrating to America in 1850.

On Monday afternoon, Mr Obama will retrace his Irish roots by visiting Moneygall, in the heart of the Irish countryside 86 miles south-west of Dublin.

An exclusion zone around the village will be put in place but a limited number of tickets were distributed last week for people to watch the presidential visit. Residents of the village got priority.

Willie Jones, 57, has lived in the village all of his life. "This golden ticket is precious," he said. "If we put it on the market, we could get anything from 500 to 1,000 euros.

"They are like gold dust. They're wanted in every part of the parish and outside it. People are coming from Wexford, Dublin and God knows where. But no money will buy it."

Moneygall has a population of 300 people, but during an hour-long tour of the main street I could only find one person willing to part with their cherished ticket.

Paul O'Reilly said: "Give me 500 euros and you can have it in a heartbeat."

So why was he willing to sell?

"It's just like the Queen visit - you are not going to see too much of it.

"You're just going to see a flash of him. That's it. You'll see more on the TV than you will around the village."

Image caption Moneygall is making its final preparations for the visit

Security restrictions mean that even if people want to transfer their tickets, it is unlikely that they will be able to do so.

Photo identification, names and addresses will be checked by police along with every ticket.

The security operation is huge. Police officers are in every field around the village. Some have taken shelter under trees, leading to one local wag joking that "they must be special branch".

Moneygall has two pubs but has no bank, cash machine or petrol station.

Like the rest of Ireland, County Offaly has been hit hard by the collapse of the Celtic Tiger economy.

However, a number of new shops have opened in advance of the visit, selling Obama souvenirs including T-shirts which say: "What's the craic Barack?"

Another says: "O'Bama: Is Feidir Linn" - that is Irish for "yes, we can".

Notice the apostrophe. Obama has become O'Bama in Ireland.

A new coffee shop - Obama cafe - has been built in Moneygall. One of those involved, Mark Costello, said the presidential visit has been good for local businesses.

"We've used local electricians, painters. It's been a much-needed boost for people here.

"People are out chatting on the street all the time now. It harks back to the old days when I was a kid."

Image caption T-shirts marking the visit of Obama are selling well in Moneygall

In Ollie Hayes' pub on Moneygall's main street, President Obama is likely to sip a pint of the black stuff on Monday afternoon.

Unlike most barmen, Ollie Hayes is unlikely to be very talkative. He lost his voice last week, blaming too many TV interviews.

Other residents of the village are happy to do the talking for him.

Pensioner Marie Shepherd said: "The atmosphere is electric. It's wonderful for Ireland. I'm delighted that I lived to see it."

One of Obama's distant relatives is still in the village. Henry Healy is the President's eighth cousin, and is due to meet him during the whistlestop visit.

He said: "I can barely sleep - rehearsing what I am going to say to him."

If he is stuck he can always ask: "What's the craic Barack?"

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