Today in Washington DC the world witness’s the dawning of a new era. Worrying as prospects of the incoming president may be I’m not one to think that the reign of any particular US President necessarily leads either towards that nations salvation or destruction. My own view is that whilst of course the President matters, much more important is the entire power base of the moneyed ruling elite and the vested interest they have. But that’s beside the point here.
This day 8 years ago I was in Washington DC to film the inauguration of Barack Obama for a documentary I was making about a small Irish village in the midlands called Moneygall, which had discovered that Obama was their long lost son.
I remember in DC that day I kept reminding myself that whilst I didn’t want to be swept up in the euphoria that was coursing through the hundreds of thousands of people that had traveled to witness the inauguration of America’s first ‘Black president’, I didn’t want to be overly cynical either. I had nothing against Obama but I did see him as just a darling of the elite who had helped him take the crown and would expect their pound of flesh.
What I witnessed in DC was truly powerful. People were intoxicated with hope, with change, with optimism. I kept hearing that voice in me ear telling me that this could be Germany in 1933 when another messiah was being appointed to lead his people towards the light. In no way do I draw parallels between those two men and their politics but I draw parallels in the hysteria that catches people up and sweeps them into a sea of emotional thinking. I will never seek to take from the joy of the African Americans that I met that day who were justifiably euphoric. But I also met white people who openly told me they wished they were black, I met people who truly believed Obama to be some kind of messiah, that he would redeem the sins of America and lead it as a light unto the world.
The journey that brought me from the small, one street village of Moneygall to Washington DC was a long one, peppered with fantastic stories and characters, some real adventures and dangers and is one of my favorite times ever as a documentarian. I had to make use of all of my strengths and my weakness’s were exposed, I had guns pointed at me, I was followed by helicopters as I sped along small country roads, I had to outsmart, and I did, the US Secret Service, I sang and danced and drank till late, I made many friends and met a few folk I still try not to hate.
I am going to recount it now, from memory, as much as I can. I took no notes and as of now cannot find any photos I took of the 5 year long journey. Photos usually act as my memory because that can be a little blurred at times, especially if the story is based around characters who’s main hang out is a pub with good Stout. I am not writing necessarily for people to read all the way through now, as I know very few who will see this will have the time or inclination to read it now, but more for myself, to finally jot down the memories I have from way back in 2007, when Senator Barack Obama was still a relatively unknown Politician from Chicago.
Some time in 2006 or 2007, I cannot remember, I found myself in a bar in Moneygall in Co. Offaly. I was just passing through on my way to film something else, somewhere else, I cannot remember. I had heard on some small radio station as I was driving about this Barack Obama and how he was of Irish ancestry and that his Great great great Grandfather was a Shoemaker called Fulmouth who had lived in Moneygall and left for brighter horizons to the US. In the mid 1800’s.
I happened to be passing the little village that I had never heard of, why would I have? There are thousands of such little villages all over Ireland, so I decided I’d stop and check out the story. There were two pubs in the town, Hayes, on one side of the street is an older bar and very lovely, run by Aunt Julia Hayes, the other bar just across the street is run by Ollie Hayes, Julia’s nephew and is a more modern, bigger bar. I called into Ollie’s as Julia’s was closed, though I was more drawn to Julia’s bar as it looked like the real deal, the good old fashioned and now fading Irish Public house.
Julia Hayes in her bar. Only Guiness and Carling on tap.
In Ollie’s I asked about the Obama connection and was introduced to Henry Healy. Henry was a 24-year-old fellow, tall and polite and friendly. Henry gladly told me the story, how it was true that this potential new President indeed had roots in their village, that they had the records to prove it. Not only that but Henry told me that he himself was related to Obama because he also descended from Fulmouth, the Protestant shoemaker. A friend of Henry’s with a pint of Guinness held aloft announced confidently that ‘That man will become President of America and we will get him into this bar for a pint one day!’
It was such a ludicrous thing to say but said with such gusto that I decided to keep an eye on the story. It seemed nuts that this guy would become President at all, he had Hilary Clinton running against him in the democratic elections and she, I felt, was a sure bet for President. Shows what I know, my gut soundly ‘trumped’ by the unpredictable American electorate.
Sure enough as time went on the worlds media began to focus on the young Senator from Chicago. He was graceful and personable, smart and young and he was a person of colour, seemingly a perfect antidote to the disastrous Bush Presidency. I’m not joking when I say that Henry Healy from Moneygall, who became the champion for Obama’s cause (He was family after all) was actually quite similar, not just in looks and size but in persona. Henry is also a charming, personable man, passionate about politics and passionate about his town.
Henry had discovered that the link to Obama, who was gaining hugely in popularity was just what was needed to put his village on the map. ‘People just pass through Moneygall’, as Julia Hayes told me, ‘on their way somewhere else’. Sure why would you stop here? By now they had discovered that there could well be a reason to stop and Henry was the man to make the reason become a reality. Henry decided to make it his cause to highlight the fact that this ‘Great man… potentially the biggest man in the world’ came from his town. And whilst Obama became the darling of the worlds media, Henry became the darling of the Irish media, though in fairness it was all a bit of craic for most of the Irish and a bit of sideshow comedy for some of the smart arsed Dublin based columnists. Henry saw the funny side too, but he was deadly serious.
As Obama’s story progressed so did Moneygall’s. The media arrived in the village for the democratic election and the village was jubilant when Obama knocked Hilary out. I remember thinking that she’d be back; I had a strong sense that she would one day rule... All of the focus during the elections was around the two bars in Moneygall, the crowd congregating In Ollie’s, whilst the older folk or the younger folk looking for a more relaxed pint went to Julia’s bar. I flitted between the two with my video camera, recording everything that I could. At first my camera was viewed with suspicion, as was I, but the villagers grew used to cameras after a while and they grew used to me, as I was the only ‘meeja’ man who kept returning to the village so they got to know me a little. I was also in a position to have a sociable pint or two whenever I felt like it because I wasn’t working for anyone, I was on my own… I was the ‘freelancer!’ Free to take a pint when I saw fit, free to leave when I saw fit, free to eat in the cheapest restaurants and sleep in the fleabittenist motels, just the way I like it.
The local Politicians and grandees turned up of course, like pigs to shit.
It was a surreal night; we stayed up till the early hours in Ollie’s watching the count. The drink was flowing, the singing got louder, there was trad dancing, the Catholic Priest Father Joe was there, the local Protestant Vicar, Stephen Neill was there. The craic was, as they say, totally fucking mighty. It was the Protestant Vicar who had discovered the link in the first place; well at least it was he who had been contacted by some American genealogists inquiring if there were any records of a certain Fulmouth Kearney. A positive aspect of the Protestant church, or Church of Ireland as they say in Ireland is that it has meticulously kept its records. Births, deaths, Baptismals and Weddings are all recorded in the good book. It didn’t take Stephen Neill long to find the old records of Fulmouth and his family in the local Church of Ireland Church, a lovely quiet old building a few miles out of the town and surrounded by tall and noble trees. Father Joe the Catholic Priest made a joke that made the whole pub crack up He said Obama was the first real ‘Black Protestant’ In Ireland, referring to the fact that in the bad old days the Protestants were some times referred to as ‘Black Protestants.’
Many of the villagers that had been doubters were converted with the morning news that Barack Obama would indeed be President of the US, the leader of the ‘Free world’. There had been many doubters. There were those that doubted he would make it, there were those whose natural affiliation was more of a Republican nature, some even tried to claim that McCain had more Irish roots than Obama. There were those that just didn’t care for the media circus at all and wanted nothing to do with any of it and there were those, though really they were very few who harboured some hidden racism. Most villagers thought the idea of a Black President was a good thing.
So, Henry was declared king of the village, his hard work had paid off. Julia, in the pub across the way and Henry’s great aunt declared that she knew Henry was going to one day show all of us what he was made of and now was his time. He ended up on talk shows, expertly representing his cause and his village. Henry’s mother kept a low profile but she was there for him always, deflecting the pressure and making sure he ate properly.
Henry with his girls, Aunt Julia over his right shoulder.
The next step in the journey was the inauguration. Henry had made a connectio with the Irish American democrats, who had in turn contacted the Obama PR machine, who had decided to make good use of this Irish connection for political reasons. There are 40 million Americans who claim Irish decent and also it deflected some of the rubbish about Obama not being American at all. In return, Henry, the Protestant Vicar Stephen Neill and Ollie Hayes were invited to attend the inauguration, followed by their band of merry men ‘The Corrigan brothers’ who cannily jumped on the bad-wagon by producing an anthem of sorts, with the tune that was either loved or hated ‘There’s no-one as Irish as Barack Obama.’ Most Americans loved the song, most Irish were embarrassed, the Corrigan Brothers didn’t care, they had been invited to play their tune at the inauguration and that’s what mattered.
Of course I followed the team to DC. Still with no funding I decided that I started with a gamble and it was working out so far so I kept going though the stakes were growing higher.
Washington DC with the lads was something special. Word spread that Henry was the distant Irish cousin and many Americans, mostly African Americans were only too happy to shake his hand. I met an old man who whispered to me that his own grandfather had been a slave and to think now that one of their own was to take the Presidency was for him just mind blowing. I positioned myself on a roof above the crowd to film the new President and found myself surrounded by sharp shooters one of whom I saw aimed his gun directly at me. Being on a high building with a camera that sometimes can be mistaken for a mini rocket launcher wasn't the smartest idea I've ever had
Henry didn’t actually get to meet his cousin then but stood wistfully outside the Whitehouse. It wouldn’t take too long before Henry was looking out from the inside rather than the other way around. I climbed up some empty stage seating with my sometimes rocket launcher-ish looking camera that had been placed at the gates of the White house and found myself again in the sights of some shooters who screamed at me to get down immediately or they would open fire.
My favorite memory of the whole day was afterwards at the Irish American democrat party. It was strictly black tie and white skin, though the latter wasn’t out of prejudice in fairness. I wasn’t allowed film inside and so had to make myself happy with hanging around the lobby. I went to the jacks, my camera around my neck and in one of the toilet cubicles I heard singing. The door opened and it was an African American toilet attendant. A man in his fifties with a neat uniform on and he was singing his heart out. I asked him what the day had meant to him and he gave me a speech straight from the heart about how much the day meant, not only to him but African Americans and indeed the whole world. He was such a cool guy and his heartfelt and powerful speech brought the hairs out on my neck. I’ve never heard anything like it since.
Back in Ireland it didn’t take long for all to revert back to normal. The world and Moneygall moved on. The party was over and Barack had work to do, so did Henry, he was back at his old desk job in the old portacabin in Moneygall where he worked as a plumbers clerk.
The months and years passed. My documentary went unfinished and nearly forgotten. No money, no editor, no producer, no real interest. It lay with all my other footage from other unfinished projects gathering dust and burning a whole in me until one day I was driving somewhere to film something that I can’t remember, when I heard on the radio that Barack Obama had announced that he wanted to come to Ireland and he wanted to visit the village of his ancestors and maybe go for a pint in the local. Game on!
I found a Producer finally and she managed to scrape some money from the national broadcaster to edit the film I had spent 4 years following. Now everyone wanted a piece of the action. Other filmmakers turned up, some with bigger guns than me, some with celebrities in tow. Some tried to gently take over the story from me and it necessitated some diplomatic maneuvering. But the key thing was that Henry stayed with me, he knew I was the one who had been with them since the start, I had nothing to worry about. Also I knew most of the village by now and a letter I had written to the editor of the Irish times had been published where I had defended the town from accusations of shameless avarice and glory seeking.
I had forgotten I had written it and it was produced, carefully kept in the wallet of the local School-master at a crucial stage sometime later when media access was being discussed for the Presidents visit.
The build up to the visit of a US president to a small Irish Village was surreal indeed. O’Bama had recently popped off Osama and so the secret service were on high alert. His trip to Ireland would be his first trip outside the US since his recent victory and word had it that a small Irish village was seen as a soft target for a would-be Osama fan. So the security was racked up to eleven on the scale. I’ve never seen anything like it.
The secret service was spotted lurking around the street of Moneygall months ahead of the visit. Secret negotiations were held, cameras were fitted, wires were tapped. In preparation for the visit 2,000 Irish police would be sent to ring the village entirely, so no one could enter or exit from anywhere. Snipers would be placed in the fields overlooking the village and a local farmer accidentally stood on one he was so well hidden. A rocket launcher had been placed on a hillside nearby, though in truth, I never authenticated that story.
There was an advance rehearsal which went as far as landing the Presidents helicopter, or a double of some sort, in the local Football field to see if it was safe, I tried to film that but was told to feck off by the Gardai. I went up in the hills overlooking to get the shot and the helicopter must have spotted me because it came up right above me and hovered. The wind nearly blew my tripod over and I saw a flash of someone in the chopper taking a picture of me. Wary of being banned from the big day itself or even the victim of an overzealous gunner with his hand on the hellfire button I got into my car and zoomed off, only to see in the rear view mirror that the chopper was following me. I took it handy, put some loud Jimmy Hendix CD I was listening to on to act as the soundtrack to the James Bond style movie I had found myself in. In truth I was very grateful to make it to Ollie’s bar where I needed a pint to calm my nerves and recount my tale to the afternoon few.
A meeting had been organised to discuss a situation that had arisen in the town that needed to be sorted out quick and thankfully they allowed me film it. Things were getting trickier to film as the local politicians got involved and the Irish Government eventually made its lofty presence known. What needed to be discussed was who was going to be able to get to meet the President when he did arrive . Who was going to be able to even be in the village that day as really no more than a few hundred can line the street yet word had it that many people from all over were making plans to be in Moneygall on the day to catch a glimpse of the big man or even catch a kiss from the first Lady.
Local politicians and some not so local began to book places for themselves and their entourages and soon, if things kept going like that there would be no room for the villagers themselves. The Americans had made it known that no-one would be allowed to stand at the windows of the first floor of their homes and every house would have to be emptied and searched with sniffer dogs and detectors.
After much debate about where the boundary of the village actually lay it was decided that invites would be issued to all the villagers and relevant politicians and the rest would be divvied out by lottery. Literally golden tickets were issued to successful applicants. Other things that needed to be discussed were the mounting pressure the village was coming under from all kinds of places. Paddy Power the gambling house was trying to persuade Henry to get the President place a bet on himself getting re-elected for a second term, promising thousands of much needed moolah to the village in return. The village was offered new street lighting by street lighting companies, Dulux wanted to paint the entire village with Dulux paints, Crown paints got upset. Bands wanted to perform, Guinness wanted to sponsor everything, as long as they got their shot of himself with a pint of Black, and the town was beset by charlatans and fakers of an amazing hue and spectrum. Henry and the town elders batted them all off and successfully kept the honour of the village intact. They even offered invites to members of a neighbouring village that had been put out because their claim (which was valid) of having a closer link to Fulmouth Kearney and therefore the President, than Moneygall, had been roundly ignored by everybody. They were right, the citizens of Toomevara but they were too slow and they had no Henry to fight their cause.
Two days before his arrival and the town was on a high. Henry’s friend who had opened up a temporary printing shop was printing up all manner of hunourous O’Bama T-shirts as fast as his machine could work, people were trying to sell the Obama craft beers they had brewed and another villager raced to finish his Obama café to have it open on time but he hadn’t even started plastering the outside. The sun shone and the entire village was out cleaning and painting, cutting hedges and grass. Dulux had managed to paint the town and it looked stunning. The finishing touches were being put on the small cottage in the centre of the street that was Fulmouth's pace of residence. Not many know that before it had been dolled up in old Oirish heritage gear a ‘Lady of the night’ from Tullamore had been lodging there and had to be convinced to leave with apparently a rather large enticement. Estranged family members were returning home to Moneygall and the pubs were fuller than they had ever been before.
Julia struggled to keep up with her newfound popularity and drafted in extra help, but she was in her element. Rumour had reached her that the President would enter her pub for a drink too, that it had been written in the papers that her pub was ‘fit for a President. ’ Indeed it was, the President never made it but Julia knows that her bar was fit for more than just a President, it was fit for a true Queen like herself. She used to slip a little bottle of whiskey into my pocket when I was finished filming and heading home. I think now the bar has closed it’s doors and it will be sorely missed.
I entered the throng in Ollie’s bar, remembering how quiet it was when I first entered. Now I looked around and I’m not kidding when I say this; there was a fantastic trad band in one corner that had been in the village and been drinking heavily for the last week non stop, their Accordion player looked so sick it seemed as if he wouldn’t last until the big day. There was an African drumming band that had arrived and was wowing the little old ladies in the back bar. There were secret service men in the bar that would occasionally speak into their sleeves. There was the disgraced corrupt Irish politician Michael Lowry, somehow forgiven for the day by the locals. There was Patrick Bergin the Irish American Robin hood sitting at the bar pissed out of his skull woefully trying to accompany the trad music with a bodhrain. Surreal is not the word.
The day before his arrival I myself still had no permission to film, nor even permission to be in the Village. My attempts with the Press pass people in Dublin had not been addressed and I met someone from the staff of the Irish department of foreign affairs who confidently and somewhat chirpily informed that I wouldn’t have a chance in Hell of getting anywhere near the President. Even Henry couldn’t help me this time. I knew only one thing. No one was going to stop me filming the climax of a film that I started alone nearly five years previously. That was just not an option. I heard that the village would be emptied of people whilst every house was searched and everyone would have to pass through a metal detector to get back in. I hid my camera equipment in a hay barn behind Henry’s house. I left the rest in the lap of the Gods.
The day of his arrival Ray Darcy from Radio whatever had set up studio in the T-shirt printing shop. I strolled past police lines waving at a cop I had acquainted myself with. It was still early morning so they weren’t yet checking press passes and he assumed I had one since he had seen me with cameras. Later, when I retrieved my camera from the barn a cop did try to ask me but I gestured that I had no time to talk to him now and that I had to go away urgently and stepped inside Ray Darcy’s radio studio who was broadcasting live, the cop let me be and Ray let me hide for a while. I stayed there whilst the village was emptied and searched. I mingled with the crowd as they trickled back in and waited. And I waited and waited, through the rain and the hail and the sun. I was so squeezed by the crowd and the fencing that I could hardly breathe. My claustrophobia began to gnaw and I began to hate a teenage girl in front of me who wouldn’t remove her elbow from my groin, as she didn’t want to lose any space. It was incredibly difficult to film.
The steam rising from me after being soaked fogged my lens badly and the heat of the crowd plus fatigue and my own excess finally settled on me. So much did it settle on me that when an American official approached me to enquire as to whether I was filming for myself or for the media I didn’t know how to answer correctly and just managed to mumble something sufficiently incoherent as to be left be, with a pitying smile. When the President arrived and finally stood before me and I reached him my hand to shake his, whilst I filmed withmy mini rocket launcher lookalike in my other, all that went through my head was Travis Bickle. It could have been me. I
He had his pint, the politicians wet themselves, Henry’s mum got a kiss as did many babies and off he went in his Chopper after just 25 minutes in the village. After taking a nap somewhere I hopped in my car for home, I hadn’t been for weeks. I put on Jimmy Hendrix extra loud and remember that I noticed after a while that tears were streaming down my face. I let them come. Mission accomplished.