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Monday
May232011

President Obama's Irish Eyes Smile in Ancestral Hometown

Irish Government - Pool /Getty Images(MONEYGALL, Ireland) -- President Obama Monday visited the town of his ancestors, the tiny town of Moneygall, about 90 miles from Dublin, to learn more about his family heritage and to pursue a perfect pint.

"The first time I had Guinness is when I came to the Shannon airport. We were flying into Afghanistan and so stopped in Shannon," the president said as he hoisted a pint of Guinness in a Moneygall pub. "It was the middle of the night. And I tried one of these and I realized it tastes so much better here than it does in the States...What I realized was, is that you guys are -- You're keeping all the best stuff here!"

The last time a U.S. president was so effusively welcomed to Ireland as a favorite was 1963 when President John Kennedy traveled there and called it "the best four days of his life." Almost 50 years later, another president with Irish roots is receiving the warm welcome.

The president's journey to Moneygall began in 2007 when American genealogist Megan Slovenyak discovered the connection on Obama's maternal side.

"I had no idea what his heritage would be. I was curious about how far back you would go to find an immigrant," Slovenyak said. "Because we tend to elect people with deep colonial roots in America. And so I was curious about that. And so the first immigrant, the most recent one I encountered was Falmouth Kearney, who was his third grandfather who happened to be from Ireland.  And as an Irish American I was pretty tickled about that."

Slovenyak sent her information to Moneygall, to Canon Stephen Neill who was able to track the connection in the registries of the Templeharry Anglican Church here. And indeed, Neill found records of the baptism of President Obama's great, great, great grandfather Falmouth Kearney, the son of shoemaker Joseph Kearney.

"I was thrilled," Neill tells ABC News. "A shiver went down my spine."

Moneygall has become for Obama what Crawford, Texas was for George W. Bush -- a small unknown town in the middle of nowhere transformed into a tourist attraction.  Obama's ancestral home on the main road in Moneygall -- rebuilt after the Kearneys left Ireland -- is now one of many tourist stops in the tiny town. On the bar at Ollie Hayes' Pub sits a bust of the president; on the wall hang a 2008 Obama-Biden campaign poster and a picture of a smiling Obama hoisting a Guinness.

While by some measures the president is only 3 percent Irish, that hasn't stopped Moneygall -- a town of just 298 people -- from going all out to welcome the president. In preparation for Monday’s visit, the town was scrubbed clean, painted and repaved. American flags and Obama souvenirs -- T-shirts, pens, hats, buttons -- are everywhere.

President Obama greeted Henry Healy, 26, with a warm hug. The shy, unassuming accountant is Obama's 8th cousin and has thus become a local celebrity.

Healy hopes Moneygall –- a town that has suffered tremendously from Ireland's severe economic problems -- will change with all the attention.

"At the end of the day I keep emphasizing that it is the village of Moneygall that the president has chosen to come [visit], not to see me or anyone in particular," he said. "It is to come back and see his ancestry.  And I'm just delighted to play some part of this good news story."

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