Saturday 24 January 2009

A Journey into Hope

As I sit and write this report it is just 24 hours since the trip of a lifetime ended and I am still buzzing from the myraid of emotions and experiences that  I encountered.  It all began in the small hours of Sunday 18th of January when along with Henry Healy and Pete Creighton I headed for Shannon airport.  Henry, from Moneygall, is of course one of President Obama’s Irish cousins and Pete Creighton is the Producer/Arranger of the Corrigan Brothers who wrote : ‘There’s no one as Irish as Barack Obama’.  Arriving in Shannon at 4am we met with Willie Dunne, a gifted mandolin player and Ger Hogan an equally skilled Bass guitarist. They are part of the Corrigan Brothers band and were travelling out with us to perform with the three Corrigan brothers who had travelled out to New York a few days earlier.  The short flight to Dublin passed without incident and in Dublin we met up with the rest of our party, Sinead O’Donnell of i105-107fm who was covering the story for her station and Ed Godsell, a documentary film maker from Cork who had followed the story from the beginning when news first broke of Moneygall/Templeharry’s links to Obama. 

Once we got through immigration and had our pictures and our fingerprints recorded (a first for most of us) we arrived at our departure gate where we had the first of many extroardinary encounters. George Hook was at the gate with us but much more intriguing was an Indonesian woman travelling with her young son. She it turned out was a lifelong friend of Obama’s sister and knew the president to be very well.  Now living in Ireland she worked in Dublin for a firm based in of all places Ballymoney, Co. Antrim where my mother grew up!  She was interested in helping set up a twinning between Moneygall and Obama’s hometown in Indonesia and as an architect also in the proposed heritage centre for Moneygall. All this and the plane hadn’t even taken off! On boarding the flight for New York (We were meeting the band in New York before heading to Washington) we all paid particular attention to the safety announcement, especially the bit about landing on water as only a day previously a passanger liner had done this very thing in New York!

Landing in New York at lunchtime monday we took a private shuttle bus into downtown Manhatten to the Milford Plaza on 8th Avenue, just one minute’s walk from Times Square. Here we met up with the Corrigan Brothers, Ger, Brian & Donncha and went out for a night on the town. After a hearty dinner in a nearby restaurant it was up to the famous but indescribable Times Square. It was after dark and it was brighter than daylight! Every single inch of every building and highrise was solid video screens! It was simultaneously one of the most mesmirising, kitsch and strangely beautiful sights I have ever seen! Those of us, including myself, who had never seen it before could but wonder and stare at the overwhelming scale of it all.  Ed and Sinead our friendly journalists did some interviews on the street asking their opinion of Obama – the response, especially when they heard we were from Ireland was heartwarming. People of every race and language were overflowing with hope and joy and relief. This was to be a common theme in the days ahead.  Then it was on to the Rockefeller Centre where we watched ice skating on the permanent rink outside the Centre and a very brave Henry Healy and Sinead O’Donnell actually went for a spin themselves which only ended when Sinead finally succumbed to the laws of gravity and balance.

Next on the agenda was to meet with an old friend of mine from school days in Mayo. Sheila Lynott, now living in Queens, along with her fiancee and friends met up with us in one of her favourite haunts, the Pig and Whistle where we spend the rest of the evening. Sheila is one of the few people I know with the ability to keep up with the wit and banter of Ger Corrigan and so the conversation was great.

Next morning, after a short night, Henry and I were among the first to surface and we went to a nearby diner where even I was over-faced at what was a standard breakfast. (I love America – I feel so much slimmer there). Breakfast was interupted by a phone call with Ryan Tubridy who wanted to have an informal chat with us about the next day’s show. He is one of the few interviewers who does some of his own research and it makes a huge difference.

Sadly it was now time to leave New York but there was still time to fulfill a lifetime ambition and so we took a yellow cab to Penn Station where we were going via Amtrak to Washington. Arriving at Penn Station the Corrigans also managed to fulfill a lifetime ambition by performing at Madison Square Gardens which is adjacent to the station! This open air impromptu concert, one of many, attracted a crowd who were most appreciative and remarkably some of them had heard the song before.

Once settled on the Amtrak train we were to have another strange encounter.  A woman came into the carriage and screamed and went to hug Ger Corrigan – She it transpired was Meredith Wheeler the organiser of a worldwide project called Bridges for Obama which consisted of gatheing Obama supporters at, on or under famous or scenic bridges, displaying Obama banners, the bridge being an ideal symbol for the Obama candidacy. Bridges unite two banks, spans chasms, gaps and troubled water, brings together opposing sides. Their slogan: “Yes we Span!”  Meredith had been in touch with Ger and the band and they had cooperated in mutual publicity and quite bizarely they ended up on the same train and in the same carriage. The world is indeed a very small place and in this time in America was and is a much more united place.

What followed was to be perhaps the highlight of the whole trip and still we hadn’t reached our destination! The band started to sing the Obama song and whole carriage joined in – some had heard it before and some for the first time but it didn’t matter everybody loved it and this was the beginning of a musical session that was to last the whole duration of the 3 hour trip.  At this point we made another discovery; Sinead our radio journalist was also a professional singer and could she sing! As the journey continued our carriage began to bulge at the seams with people from other carriages looking to join in the singalong. Even the Amtrak staff joined in and there were photocalls throughout the trip. Quite a few american journalists were on board and interviewed our group for radio and newspapers. At one stage on the trip I found myself broadcasting live back to Ireland via my phone on Midlands Radio 3! The whole thing was quite amazing but what made it was the joy and the happiness of the people onboard, mostly but not exclusively African American. At one stage during the journey I had a great chat with a Rabbi who knew one of my favourite Jewish authors, Harold Kushner. One woman, by now in tears, asked us to convey her apologies to the world for the behaviour of the American Government in the last 8 years. The relief on her face that this nightmare was over was so obvious. There was a real sense that this was a nation rediscovering its foundational values and in a sense rediscovering its very self. The emotion that realisation provoked is impossible to capture in words and will forever remain with me. 

There were some very light-hearted moments too. When we introduced Henry Healy to people on the train as Obama’s Irish cousin some of them were bemused and some were very excited but one African American woman asked if she could see anything of Obama in Henry said without hesitation: “Oh Yes! He has Obama ears!” Needless to say, Henry will not be allowed forget that!

Our home for most of our stay in Washington was with the Shuyler’s, Anne and Bill and their daughters Tia and Ada. They were friends of a friend of mine who had seen a comment I had made on Facebook about looking for accomodation in Washington and offered to put us up for free!  Normally they host Tibetan Bhuddist monks, and they are very involved in the Free Tibet movement. They told us that they normally host 22 monks so 10 Irish was not a problem! Better again we didn’t have to wear saffron robes which might have been a bit chilly in minus 13 degrees! They lived just over the Virginia Bridges in the subburbs and we made the trip out there in a gargantuan Chevy Suburban minivan (why they call them mini I will never know). On arrival it was no time until we felt at home. The Shuylers were the most hospitable and generous people I have met for a very long time. They didn’t know any of us and yet they treated us like long lost friends. Without them we would have been in real difficulty. Due to the inauguration there wasn’t a hotel bed to be had in Washington and even private householders who were charging silly money to rent out their homes were booked out. They were an answer to prayer.  The day of our arrival was Ada’s birthday and we were all invited to join in the party. It was a wonderfully relaxing evening after the hectic few days that had preceeded it. Sharing a home-cooked meal around the biggest kitchen table I have ever seen we had great fun together and this was followed by a musical evening around the fireside with the family and friends and neighbours who came in after dinner to join the party. Pete Creighton, a wizard on the piano led the evenings entertainment and  as Ger Corrigan said during the evening – ‘It doesn’t get better than this’.  Our reputation must have gone before because Bill had got a very large stock of beer in for the party and while we didn’t get through it all he did say that his recycling bin had never been fuller!  During the evening Henry got an invitation from Ted Kennedy’s office to come and visit the Senator early on Inauguration day but sadly the logistics of transport made this impossible. As it turned out the great man was taken ill on the day, probably from the biting cold which was indescribable.

The next day was January 20th, Inauguration Day. After a hearty american breakfast of eggs and muffins Bill and Anne and their daughter Tia brought us in convoy to the Metro station.  Here we were met by a crowd bigger than we had anticipated all trying to go the same direction we were. While we were waiting we were approached by ABC television who interviewed us live on Network TV and the band performed the song for their viewers. Getting on the train was a challenge reminiscent of the Toyko Underground. When we eventually got onboard it was a case of taking turns to breathe and becoming very intimate with complete strangers! But everyone was in great form and while a 20 minute jorney took nearly an hour and a half the time passed quickly as the band once again performed (without instruments as there wasn’t enough space) and kept the carriage entertained. Arriving at the Ronald Regan Building on Pennsylvania Avenue where we were invited to an all day buffet and parade party by the American Ireland Fund we were quickly ushered upstairs after passing through airport style security to the Rotunda at the top of the building which offered open air panaramic views stretching from the White House up towards Capitol Hill. Here we enjoyed great company, great food and a wonderful view of the parade. We saw the Presidential motercade twice, both on route to the Capitol and on the way back after the Inauguration.  I will never forget the cheers on the street below when Obama passed and also the cheers when Bush’s helicopter departed and flew overhead. The President’s speech brought tears to many a cheek and it was one of the happiest most joyous occassions I can remember. This was the rebirth of a nation and it was SO GOOD to be there to witness it.

Following the parade we were to head for the Irish Democrats’ Ball at the Phoenix Park Hotel!  The only obstacle that lay in my path was getting changed into my Black Tie gear. This was the first occassion I had worn a clerical stock (a formal plain fronted waistcoat with full collar included). This required the attachment of studs and collars and various pariphanalia all equally unfamiliar and uncomfortable. I wished right then I was a rockstar like the Corrigans – they can wear what they like! Thanks to one of the lads in the band who kindly helped me put it all together I finally emerged from behind a screen to tremendous applause. Not even Sinead who had also apparently needed assistance to get tied into her ballgown had recieved such a response!

(Well perhaps I exaggerate)

The Ball was a great occassion. Our hostess Stella O’Laoire, head of the Irish Democrats gave us a warm welcome and we sat at a table with the Friends of DC. Surf and Turf was the main course and it went down well, accompanied with speeches from John Bruton, former Taoiseach, Michael Collins, Irish Ambassador and Martin O’Malley the Governor of Maryland. We met some great characters including two brothers who were a priest and actor, the latter who played the spoons with the Corrigans during their performance. After that it was a short journey next door to the Dubliner pub to unwind informally after a long but wonderful day. Getting home proved a bit of a challenge with taxis in short supply and not exactly dressed for the sub-zero temperatures we were never so glad as when they finally showed up and we could gradually defrost.

The next day we left our new home for a base in the city for our final night. We were all sorry to be leaving the Shuylers who had been so kind and welcoming but I am sure we will meet again. There is so much to do in Washington and I would love to go back sometime.  Having settled into the Beacon Hotel on Rhode Island Av. we headed out and after an unexpected and very pleasant meeting with Marty Whelan in a department store we headed  for the sights, starting at the White House. Here the band performed outside the main gates attracting a large crowd who sang along and various international media who broadcast their spontaneous performance.  After this we went our seperate ways for the afternoon – I took the opentop bus tour and saw all the tourist sites including Washington Cathedral which I have to come back and visit properly. It was so beautiful and obviously a source of considerable pride to Washingtonians, taking most of the last century to build. That night I along with a few others had a quiet evening in....we were exhausted and ate in our hotel and had a chance to recharge the batteries.

The next day was our last. Having not had time before now I went shopping in a place called Pentagon City, an indoor Mall famous for being the location where Monica Lewinsky was intercepted for questioning in 1998.  With hundreds of shops of every kind it was the ideal location to get pressies for the gang at home and I even picked up some odds and ends for myself.  Suitably laden with handbags, gadgets and Obama merchandise I headed back to the hotel to pack and get ready for our immanent departure. We had booked a fleet of limos to take us to the airport and when the 3 large black cars with blackened out windows arrived I could not help but think that we looked like the Mafia going out to a hit!

The plane journey home was a chance for some to sleep and some to reflect on an extroardinary few days. We had good company including our friend Marty Whelan and Joe Duffy (prominent Irish broadcasters) who were both sitting in economy like the rest of us....a sure sign that the world is in recession perhaps...or maybe they just prefered being with the ordinary people.  I know for me what made the whole trip so extraordinary were the ‘ordinary people’ who were so full of hope, joy, warmth and self-belief.  Yes it was about Obama and he is an extroardinary human-being, but what he has done has changed the direction of a country from despair to hope. He cannot do it all on his own but he has given the people the ability to see that the impossible can happen and that YES WE CAN is not just a slogan but a reminder that our God given human potential is something that will ultimately triumph if we stand up to those who doubt and those who try to quench the human spirit.

Parting at the airport as firm friends, united by sharing this adventure together, we all knew that we had had an enormous privelage in witnessing first-hand that moment in modern history when the dream became a reality.  I don’t think any of us will ever be quite the same again. It was for me a life-changing experience and I will be forever thankful for the opportunity to share in it and to my wife Nicola and my son Aaron for allowing me to go off on this oddessy. In what I have written I hope I have managed to convey something of what this event has meant to me and to the millions around the world who can once again hope for better things. YES WE CAN because YES WE DID!


Photos below - in no particular order - because blogger software is confounding my efforts to bring order out of chaos ;-)

Leaving Home
Shopping for pressies
Homeward bound

Impromptu Concert at White House

Henry Healy & I at White House

Even IKEA getting in on the act!

Having a Ball

Peter 'Pianoman' Creighton

The Media on Pennsylvania Avenue

Here he comes!

Close enough!

Parade Band

Motorcycle escort

Me on the Ronald Regan Building roof

Entering Ronald Regan Center

We got on this metro carriage - Yes we did!
ABC live!

Sessiun at Shuylers

Caint agus Craic at Shuylers

Birthday Dinner at Shuylers

On the porch

Bill's Car - Taste and Passion for a good cause

Breakfast at Shuylers
Amtrak singalong

Henry and friends on Amtrak

Our train is on the board

Concert at Madison Square Garden

Bye Bye Bush Clock counting down

Ger & Donny Corrigan at dinner in New York

Me and school mate from Mayo, Sheila Lynott in New York

Times Square

Dancing on Ice at Rockefeller

Me and Marty


Bock the Robber said...

Nice one Stephen. Great report.

Now get back to minding your flock!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post GMOG..captures the trip truly were an inspiration on the journey and I am looking forward to a long long friendship with you and all the touring party .

I am sure your flock were ok during your trip away, good clean living folk that they are!!

Talk soon
Thunder cat!!

Anonymous said...

I lived the journey with you in this wonderful essay!

Thank you for sharing it woth us.

Stephen Neill said...

Bock/Grannymar - thanks so much ;-) Next trip you are in!

TC - Amen to all that - GMOG :-)

Póló said...

Great account.

The people have hope. May their new president deliver.

Stephen Neill said...

Amen Póló - And thanks :-)

Joc Sanders said...

Excellent post, Stephen! I'm so glad you had such a fine time. In this house we toasted Obama in champagne after his speech!

By the way, there's a rumour about these parts that Obama's earliest traceable Irish ancestor came from Shinrone, not Moneygall ;)

Póló said...

Excellent letter in today's Irish Times.

I am a fan of O'Toole's forensic probing generally. But as you point out that was a needlessly toxic rant. The guy is good but he needs to lighten up occasionally and go with the flow.

I was particularly struck, in your post, by how a bit of jollity brought people out of themselves and by the range of people ye got going.

I talk to people in the street, in the DART, in queues, even waiting for traffic lights to change.

Makes the world go round.

Stephen Neill said...

Póló - Thanks so much - as you say Fintan is very gifted and with a sense of humor he would be even better :-) And yes it was all about the people that we met and sharing a wonderful moment in time - Unlike Fintan you obviously get it! ;-)

Joc - Don't mention the war! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your story. No wonder it's Primal's Rogha!

I, myself, witnessed the inauguration doings from my comfy sofa in Chicago. I'm so sorry I missed the ABC coverage of you all - surfing too many TV channels, an dtuigeann tú?

I enjoy your writing in general... I'll be back!

Stephen Neill said...

Kelly - Thanks for your kind words - I know what you mean - Looking forward to hearing from you again

Shane Tucker said...

Stephen, brilliant account of your trip to my home country. You make me want to go back with your writing! I'm so glad you were able to experience history-in-the-making and with such a tangible sense of joy!
I've got an hour of Inauguration video if you'd like it - just say the word! Chat with you soon friend.

Stephen Neill said...

Thanks Shane - Bring it over - I'd love to re-live the day

Unknown said...

I just randomly happened upon your post...such an exuberant and wonderful accounting of what sounds like an absolutely amazing trip! You really captured the incredible joy and relief and excitement that was present in DC (and the whole country) around this inauguration. Thank you so much for posting this account - it was a joy to read!! And, even more so, thank you for being a part of bringing music and even more happiness to everyone in Washington (and NYC)(and Ireland and everywhere else you broadcast to) that amazing weekend!! (I was lucky enough to be in DC, too, and the energy in the city was truly incredible!) Take care, and I wish you many more adventures in the future :)

Stephen Neill said...

Stephanie - Thanks so much for your comments - It truly was a life changing moment for me and I think for all of us who shared in the experience. I met up with the lads in the band today and we were all still on a high after the event!

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