So long Bill
BY ROBBIE MacGABHANN
``We must be mad,'' said my companion as we left a wet and cold Dublin on Tuesday evening, our car buffeted by storm-force winds and rain. Yes, we were mad, but with an official invite from William Jefferson Clinton to Dundalk and the sound of many people chiming `it will never happen again' or `never again in your lifetime', or the simple `I would go if I had an invite', we made our way slowly to Dundalk.
When you think about it, the not in my life time argument doesn't hold water. Kennedy came to Ireland in 1963, I distinctly remember Nixon at the Aras and marched with the protestors and flag burners for Reagan in 1984. So why was I having a sausage roll and coffee in a Statoil café in Lusk? It must have been something else driving us on to stand for four hours on a cold December night waiting for Bill.
On the issue of Ireland, Clinton has done the right thing. For this he deserves our unequivocal thanks
``We must be mad'', I said, as we reached a desolate rain swept Dundalk with the light fading, and the only hint of a crowd the 50 plus young girls in blue uniforms pondering their bedraggled stars and stripes flags. Then it seemed that we would just be making up the numbers.
However, when we reached Market Square, we realised that the slow trickle of people we had seen skulking round the town an hour earlier had swelled to a modest crowd. In fact, the crowd was now so big there was a half hour wait to pass through the airport security-style gates erected for the evening.
As we shuffled from foot to foot in the cold waiting to pass speculation was rife. Do you think the Corrs will be here? No, it's only Brian Kennedy singing Danny Boy, was the general belief. Will Bill play the Sax? Will he fly or drive? How long will he stay?
The Danny Boy scenario seemed all the more plausible as eager young Civil Defence members pounced on the waiting crowd and pressed small A5 leaflets with a welcome from Dundalk UDC on one side and the words of Danny Boy on the other.
This, I was reliably informed, was the President's favourite song. Funny though, I seemed to remember that in 1996 it was Fleetwood Mac's Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow that was Clinton's favourite song. But Clinton is well known for his forgetfulness. Still I asked myself, what was I doing here?
At least it wasn't raining, and Gerry Ryan's jibes about the VIPs having to sit on wet seats made for an interesting debate. Though the USA is a republic with all created equal, when it comes to seating they have a hierarchy with seemingly endless levels.
First off were those with invites. They got to the first corral, which as it turned out with a crowd of 60,000 people, was a lot further away than those without official invites. Then there were those with orange cards, a further lucky 600 people who got centre stage but slightly behind the people with the
green cards, who got seats. There were a further select group who got to go backstage to the hospitality and press areas, including President Adams and
ministers McGuinness and de Brún. Councillors Ferris and Reilly seemed content to have seats.
The crowd continued to grow and wait, grow and wait. A local céilí band with a good spirit of wit between reels kept us all that little bit warmer as did local boy Liam Reilly and then Altan with Donal Lunny. Then on came Brian Kennedy and it seemed that Clinton had to be coming soon. At least Reagan had come on a beautiful hot summer's day when we sat chanting and booing.
Here we were with no sun, but an impressive full moon and suddenly, there he was, the President of the United States. Sure there was some small talk from three other speakers, including Bertie Ahern, but there were calls throughout for ``We want Bill'' and ``Bill we love you''.
Clinton didn't speak long and it wasn't really what he said that mattered, though his speech covered all the bases, local and national. He talked about the 45 million US citizens of Irish extraction, the Corrs, the software island, the boom town that Dundalk was, facing into our destiny and laying our history to rest and finally the assertion that it was ``a new day in Ireland''.
As Brian Kennedy struck up Danny Boy with an accompanying violinist and a children's choir, it became clear to us why we were there. Yes there was a curiosity value in seeing and if you were lucky meeting Clinton. But the possible reason why we, all 60,000 of us, were standing out in the cold evening air was that this was an affirmation of where have come to during the past eight years of Clinton's presidency. We had come into the light and there should be no going back.
Indeed, it was clear too as we cheered and applauded that Clinton had done his part, unlike any previous US president. As he basked in the moonlight, the unacceptable aspects of the modern USA, including the boycott of Cuba, the bombing of Iraq and Kosovo and the undermining of the UN didn't really go away. It was more a case of accepting the reality that on the issue of Ireland, Clinton had done the right thing. For this he deserves our unequivocal thanks. So long Bill, it was a truly excellent adventure.