Will Barack O'Bama Cheer Up the Irish?

US President Barack Obama (or Barack O’Bama as some Irish jokers have dubbed him) is one of many Americans with Irish roots who come back to the old country to visit the places their ancestors left.

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama

Moneygall, the small village in County Offaly which Obama’s great-great-great grandfather left in 1850, was painted in stars and stripes in anticipation of the Presidential visit on Monday afternoon.

Falmouth Kearney, one of the estimated 500,000 Irish people who emigrated to the United States in the nineteenth century following the Irish Potato Famine, was probably more worried about where his next meal was going to come from than about whether his descendants would lead the most powerful nation in the world.

In 2002, more than 34 million Americans considered themselves to be of Irish ancestry, making Irish Americans the country's second-largest ethnic group.

“Obama is here because he realises that his Irish background is all part of his brand,” David McWilliams, the Irish economist, author and broadcaster, told CNBC.com.

“The idea that you have a black man with Irish roots becoming President, it’s the American dream. It’s the opposite of George W.Bush, who was a WASP and the son and grandson of a WASP,” McWilliams added.

Colm Toibin, the award-winning Irish novelist, said the US President's visit was a reason for the Irish to be proud. “The idea that we as a nation moved from being barmen and domestic servants... to becoming presidents, with almost nothing in between, is a matter of enormous pride here,” Toibin said.

Coming so soon after the Queen of England’s historic visit last week, the President’s visit has helped distract Irish people from their current economic gloom.

There has been a run on novelty T-shirts asking What’s The Craic Barack? (what's happening) and proclaiming BIFFO or Barack Is From Fecking Offaly. The acronym Biffo more often stands for Big Ignorant Fecker From Offaly, and has been used by some to refer to ex-Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

Celtic Tiger's Demise

After Ireland’s Celtic Tiger boom period of the late 1990s and the early years of this century, an epic bust came in 2007/08. The country is currently undergoing harsh public spending cuts and a period of economic gloom, following a bailout by the EU and the International Monetary Fund in November. Last week, the IMF warned that Ireland's recovery plans could be derailed.

Obama is not the only American of Irish extraction who could help give Ireland a boost. More than one-third of Fortune 500 chief executives, including Brian Moynihan, president and CEO of Bank of America, are Irish-American.

“It’s hard to imagine another country with a population of 4-5 million that has such a strong global brand,” McWilliams said.

“The Irish in America were very rural migrants who became very urban citizens in the US. Through the trade union movement, they became incredibly powerful in politics and helped shape the modern Democratic Party,” he explained.

The Irish government is making new efforts to harness this diaspora, as it tries to drag Ireland out of the economic doldrums. The Global Irish Economic Forum, a meeting of business leaders of Irish extraction, which will take place next October, is one of a number of new initiatives.

Another is the Gateway Project, where Irish researchers track down the descendents of Irish emigrants to America. “The idea is to help strengthen links by encouraging them and their children to come to Ireland and experience traditional music, Gaelic games, and so on, much like Israel has done with Birthright Israel,” McWilliams said.

While emigration to other countries such as Australia has increased during Ireland’s recent economic troubles, the number of people departing for the US has been relatively static.

Professor Colm Harmon, of University College Dublin’s Geary Institute, told CNBC.com that this is partly because the US itself has historically high levels of unemployment.

He believes that another factor is the relatively arduous US immigration process, and the increased difficulty of working in the US without a visa. More recent Irish American emigrants may not be as generous to the old country, Hannon said.

“The people leaving now are leaving with a very bitter taste in their mouths and a very strong sense that they were let down in a major way,” he said.