Barack Obama Plaza, Co. Offaly, Ireland. No, I couldn’t believe it either.
Spying the billboard on the Dublin-Limerick motorway last Friday, I simply had to investigate.
I was, of course, in Moneygall, Co. Offaly. Just three years ago, on a blustery day in May, President Barack Obama and the First Lady arrived in the little village of Moneygall to acknowledge the President’s Irish ancestry.
We know him as Obama but, of course, he’s really a Kearney from Co. Offaly. And we Irish will do anything to proclaim the great and powerful as one of our own.
Long, long ago, when I was young, I recall a sign emblazoned on County Galway pub declaring that President Kennedy had visited there. The sign stayed decades after the President had left and indeed, as we say here in Ireland, had gone to his reward.
I had often wondered, then, what kind of people would divert down a road to follow a sign declaring the merest hint of a presence of a former President.
Well, now I was one of them.
Only this time, there wasn’t just a sign…
…there was a petrol station complete with vast forecourt, and a variety of takeaways, including the largest Supermacs takeaway in Ireland.
Mr. Supermac himself, had built it. That’s Pat McDonough, a Galway man, who had started out with a chip shop and a dream and now has a chain of takeaways around the country.
And, to underscore the American theme, there this, the quintessential American car.
I wondered what President Obama would make of it all?
One might expect a person of his stature to settle for a finely chiselled sculpting. Or a plaque on his ancestral homestead. Or even Obama Street. But, a petrol forecourt?
Back in 1970s Ireland, John Travolta called out to us through the rain and wind and bog. He wandered around a drive-through theatre all slicked back hair and gleaming teeth of him, crying for his Sandy. We saw all the shiny cars and the almost felt the balminess of that night air which plainly spoke of endless proper summers and teenagers unfettered by parents, nosey biddies down the road, or lack of money. Oh! we wanted to be there.
The closest we got was to the neon lights of Supermac’s takeaway, bashfully-and speechlessly-eyeing our latest crush over curried chips. It was the highlight of our week.
Replete with a choice of takeaways, fuel dispensaries and easy access for the motoring population, Barack Obama Plaza embodies of a lifestyle of great ease, a lifestyle that anyone could aspire to. It is a testament to the American Dream.
Thirty five years later, and I am reliably informed that Obama Plaza has is a destination of choice for the bored youth of Offaly, Tipperary and Limerick.
Youth will often want to be somewhere other than their present location. Faraway hills positively glisten with promise and all sorts of elixirs lurk at the end of the rainbow. Obama Plaza fulfils such dreams The sheer spread of concrete and tar, the glisten of shiny reinforced plastic and of metal is the antithesis of bogland Offaly. And it is important that it is.
This is a little piece of America, designed to lure all sorts of gods and goddesses, hopes and dreams. Who knows who might tumble down the motorway, sweep by the Cadillac and order a Mighty Mac? And what possibilities lie beyond the bog and field and boundaries of your childhood?
Maybe, with a little extra detailing, you’ve shined up the chrome on your 1999 Toyota and are out to impress your auburn haired college-going girlfriend? Wouldn’t this be the place to be? You might even manage a little conversation between your steak sandwich and Mighty Milkshake. You might even talk of other shores, better wages, fulfilling bigger dreams. Or you might simply watch the rain trickling down on your windscreen yet again and dream of endless summers in warmer climes. And you may settle, once again, for grass and bog and rain.
President Obama is probably thrilled to have his name to such a place. And isn’t it far better than a homemade roadsign proclaiming that he had passed this way? And isn’t he all about hope and aspiration and, as he proclaimed himself in Moneygall that fateful day “Is féidir linn!” (“Yes, we can!”)
I stood in Obama Plaza though I didn’t bother driving through to order a Mighty Mac or even curried chips. I am more of the nosey biddy now, the observer, watching young people and their shenanigans.
I still have dreams, of course, though they are different now from those of my youth. I’ve grown to like the bog and the fields and even, sometimes, the rain. I like it enough to feel a judder of disquiet when cast amid a sea of concrete, tar and metal.
But I know that hope is vital. And so is aspiration. And better still, is believing that we can make our dreams a reality.
Like building a seven million euro plaza in the middle of a nowhere.
Or believing that one can lead a whole country.
Or even conjuring up a lover over curried chips.
Yes, we can! Is féidir linn!