The sign for the Barack Obama Plaza rest stop, near Moneygall, Ireland. (Photo: Rachel Delia Benaim)
Rest stops are rarely destinations in and of themselves, but the modest Barack Obama Plaza in Moneygall, Ireland, has become a very popular port of call for the many organized tours traversing the country.
One-day tours to the Cliffs of Moher—an impressively steep rock face towering above the Atlantic Ocean that has been used to dramatic effect in both the
Princess Bride and Harry Potter films—use a 20-minute pit stop in the central Irish village of Moneygall as a major selling point for their trips. And tourists eat it up. Wild Rover tours, a Dublin-based company, advertises daily tours to the Cliffs with a stop in what is described as “Obama’s ancestral homeland.”
President Obama is enthusiastically greeted by local residents during his trip to Moneygall, 2011. (Photo: The White House/Public Domain)
Most people don’t know that President Obama has Irish blood on his mother’s side–his Kenyan heritage gets far more attention. But in 1850, a 19-year-old shoemaker named Falmouth Kearney set out on one of the so-called coffin ships that left Ireland and its Potato Famine for the promising new world. Kearney was from Moneygall. This little-known fact about Obama’s maternal relative came to light when he was running for president in 2007, immediately creating a sensation in Ireland.
On his first and only official visit to Ireland in 2011, the president said, ”My name is Barack Obama, of the Moneygall O’bamas…I’ve come home to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way.” On a 90-minute visit to the village, he visited the remnants of his ancestor’s home and drank a pint of Guinness.
A plaque commemorating President Obama’s visit. (Photo: young shanahan/CC BY 2.0)
But the real fun for Moneygall started after the Commander-in-Chief left. Immediate plans were set to immortalize the political celebrity’s connection to this largely forgotten locale. The $9 million Barack Obama Plaza project was one of the largest single investments in a decade in Ireland’s Midlands region.
Located at a highway junction along the R445 motorway, the Barack Obama Plaza appears, at first glance, as nothing more than a gas station. The outside has gas pumps, and the inside looks like it might house a few snack kiosks and a restroom. But oh how deceiving looks can be. The entirety of the plaza is a tribute to the first U.S. president to ever have roots in Moneygall.
Inside, tourists can purchase everything from mugs, magnets and cigarette lighters to T-shirts proclaiming “Is Feidir Linn” (Gaelic for ‘Yes We Can’) and “What’s the Craic, Barack?” (What’s Up, Barack?).
A Gaelic-language “Yes We Can” Obama T-shirt. (Photo: Courtesy Zazzle)
Before Obama visited Moneygall on May 23, 2011, the small village in County Offaly was nothing more than a quaint highway village in the center of Ireland. Just 310 people called it home, according to the last Irish census, in 2011. Up until that year, commerce and trade were the main sources of employment for locals, according to data published by the Central Statistics Office.
In recent years, though, the Barack Obama Plaza has become the main job provider for the village, and the largest employer for miles. The plaza employs 112 people, all of whom are from Moneygall and its surrounding villages. Located in the center of the country’s luscious green countryside, Moneygall is speckled with more sheep and cows than humans–which isn’t unique for Ireland.
Inside the President Barack Obama Visitor Center. (Photo: Rachel Delia Benaim)
The crown jewel of the complex is the
President Barack Obama Visitor Centre on the second floor of the rest stop, home to an exhibit entitled “From Moneygall to the Whitehouse, The influence of the Irish abroad” (capitalizations and punctuation exactly as they appear here).
The compact room is dedicated to Barack Obama’s presidency and his historical connection to Moneygall. There is also a guestbook, which holds the John Hancocks of pilgrims from all over the world.
Even the trash can is emblazoned with ‘Barack Obama Plaza’. (Photo: Rachel Delia Benaim)
The entire plaza is covered with Obama marketing–everything from the frosted emblems on the windows to the trash cans boasts an Obama seal, lest you forget why you’re there.
Nowadays, the village draws at least a dozen tour buses daily, plus other tourists who deliberately choose to fuel up there. Beyond the plaza, Moneygall has a Catholic church, a post office, a school, and a pub. The village didn’t always look so neat–and American–but in preparation for the visit of the 44th President of the United States, the area got some sprucing up. Potholes were filled, houses and buildings were repainted, and one even
donned Stars and Stripes for the president’s visit.
Most tourists passing through Moneygall don’t allow for much time to venture past the rest stop, though. Moneygall used to be home to two pubs, but the Obama Cafe closed down last year, perhaps because too few tourists actually enter the village proper after shopping for Gaelic-inflected presidential swag at the travel plaza.
Luckily, you can still grab a cold pint of Guinness at the Ollie Hayes Bar, the very pub where Obama drank his back in 2011, which will be
hosting an American Independence Day celebration on… Sunday, July 3rd this year. After all, Monday the 4th is just another work day on the Emerald Isle, even in Obama’s distant hometown.