When I visited my ancestral homeland of Moneygall, Ireland, in 2019, I was interested in finding out about famous people from the area. I learned they include two former U.S. presidents and a movie star (or, as he sometimes refers to himself, the husband of a leading international human rights attorney).
An Irish Airbnb guest, Eimear O’Meara, had told me that the forty-fourth U.S. president had ancestors from Moneygall and a truck stop was named in his honor, but when I got to Barack Obama Plaza I was amazed. It’s no ordinary truck stop.
The former president and Mrs. Obama greet visitors in two places—by way of a statue in front of the plaza and by way of a life-sized cardboard cutout inside. In case visitors miss those, photomurals of the Obamas’ 2011 visit to the area cover some walls on the main level of the plaza. A mini museum on the second level pays homage not just to Obama, but also to other presidents with ties to Ireland. Twenty such presidents are listed on an informational panel and three—John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton–are emphasized with their own panels containing quotes.
Before the plaza opened, Moneygall was a sleepy village off of the beaten path between Dublin and Limerick. But, when the plan was made to open the plaza, all the houses in the village were painted and Obama’s ancestral home was opened for tours. With multiple dining options as well facilities for community meetings, the plaza provides more than 100 jobs. It revitalized the area in many ways.
The copious online resources related to the plaza include an article about “how an Irish rest stop was named after a U.S. president” at http://irishfireside.com/2014/06/09/curious-tale-irish-rest-stop-named-us-president/.
It was through the plaza that I learned that President Reagan had ancestors from the same general area. His ancestors were from Ballyporeen in county Tipperary and Moneygall is on the border of counties Tipperary and Offaly.
A panel at the plaza quotes words Reagan spoke when he visited Ireland. He said, “Today I come back to you as a descendant of people who were buried in pauper’s graves. Perhaps this is God’s way of remanding us that we must always treat every individual, no matter what his or her station in life, with dignity and respect. And who knows? Someday that person’s child or grandchild might grow up to become the Prime Minister of Ireland or President of the United States.”
The movie star wasn’t as easy to find. A taxi driver in Dublin told me George Clooney had just made a secretive trip to the Moneygall area, so I hoped people might be buzzing about him. But apparently he had actually visited a place a few counties away.
From my family, I had heard that we might be related to Clooney, possibly through Cornelius Guilfoyle (as my name was originally spelled), but it wasn’t clear which Cornelius Guilfoyle. “Black Con” and “Red Con,” had nicknames that distinguished them according to their hair color. One Cornelius Guilfoyle was killed when his skull was crushed and he died at the doorstep of my ancestor Hannah Meara. (According to a contemporaneous account, the suspected murderer was found “lying under two or three women who, it seems, were concealing him.”) And George Clooney’s great-great grandfather was Cornelius Guilfoyle.
The best clue to our potential relationship was provided by George’s aunt Rosemary Clooney, who was a famous singer. In her autobiography Girl Singer, she mentioned her grandparents, Michael Joseph Guilfoyle and his wife Ada. Information online showed the lineage from there down to George Clooney and up to William “Big Bill” Guilfoyle. Even though I haven’t been able to establish a link between Big Bill and my earliest known Guilfoyle relative, we still talk about “Cousin George” when we see Clooney in movies.
I didn’t see any evidence that George Clooney has ever visited Barack Obama Plaza. One would think he might, since Obama and Clooney are kindred spirits who share an ancestral homeland.
If you’re looking for help with a writing project—whether it’s about travels, presidents, genealogy or other topics—I’d love to chat with you about it.
My guest editor for this post was Judy Bucher, who was most recently editor of Colorado Expression Magazine. She too visited Barack Obama Plaza in 2019 on her way to Killarney.