US President Barack Obama opened a four-nation tour of Europe in Ireland where he will explore his Irish roots in a town that was home to his great-great-great grandfather.
Obama and his wife Michelle landed in Dublin, first stop on a week-long trip that will include visits to Britain, France and Poland and is aimed at bolstering ties with long-time allies.
For Ireland, Obama’s arrival, and the visit of the Queen last week, came as a welcome distraction from the global attention paid to the country’s financial woes, Reuters reports.
During the week, Obama and his counterparts will cover pressing issues including Afghanistan and Pakistan after the killing of Osama bin Laden, the world economy and the “Arab spring” uprisings.
Obama arrived on Air Force One on a windy, rainy day, and was due to hold talks with Irish President Mary McAleese, and later the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny.
His next move will appeal to 37 million Americans who claim Irish ancestry, and could produce powerful imagery for his 2012 re-election campaign.
He is to visit Moneygall, a sleepy village of 300 people that was the birthplace of his great-great-great grandfather, Falmouth Kearney, a shoemaker.
“This is a homecoming of sorts for President Obama,” said Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser.
Town residents lined up for up to six hours last week to get a ticket to see the president, who has been affectionately renamed “O’Bama” for his Irish sojourn.
A security zone was set up around the town on Monday and only people with tickets will be let in.
Henry Healy, Obama’s 24-year-old distant cousin from Moneygall, told Ireland’s state broadcaster that villagers had painted the front of their houses to prepare for the visit.
“Nearly every American president makes the visit to Ireland and it’s very special that President Obama is actually really able to make that personal connection by coming back and being able to trace his roots and come and see the ancestral home,” Healy said.
Obama, the first African-American U.S. president, is the son of a Kenyan father and Irish-American mother.
Later in the day he is expected to make a speech about U.S.-Irish ties in Dublin.
Tens of thousands of people were expected to brave high winds and driving rain to hear Obama’s public address in downtown Dublin. Miles of barriers were erected in the capital and thousands of police officers patrolled the streets.
The area around the Bank of Ireland building in College Green, formerly Ireland’s parliament and a site traditionally used to fete national heroes, has been cordoned off in preparation for Obama’s address.
Spectators will have to go through airport-style scanners and the president is expected to speak from behind a bullet-proof screen.
Around 100,000 people crammed into College Green to hear Bill Clinton speak in 1995 when his administration was heavily involved in peace negotiations in Northern Ireland.
Many Irish were thrilled that Obama was visiting their country, particularly the week after a landmark visit by Queen Elizabeth. Some Dublin pubs put up banners welcoming the U.S. president.
“We’re a tiny nation of four million people so it’s a lovely gesture him coming over. Given that we’ve had the queen as well it’s been a momentous week. It’s a lift for Ireland,” said Susannah Moore of Dublin city.
There were also some hopes that Obama would help out with Ireland’s debt crisis.
“I think it’s great that he’s coming over. Hopefully he will get more than just the ‘thatched roof’ image of Ireland. We’ve moved beyond that,” said 51-year-old John Doyle. “Hopefully he can use his influence to help us out with the cost of our bailout.”
Obama heads to Britain on Tuesday, where he will be feted by Queen Elizabeth at a formal state dinner. He then attends the Group of Eight summit in France before concluding his trip in Poland, where he will meet with leaders from eastern Europe.