Well that was that. They’re both gone now. The Irish as a country can sit back and relax a little, have a cup of tea and say “Well I thought that went quite well.”
The two visits were very different. If they were films, the Queen’s visit would be a Jane Austen adaptation starring Sir Anthony Hopkins – an acutely observed slow-moving drama about nuance and the tangled webs we weave.
Obama’s time here was more of a Hollywood blockbuster – shorter, louder but with much bigger audiences. And like all films set in Ireland, an awful lot more redheads. Our next big visitors will probably be a team from the IMF but they can show themselves around – although we may still order Westlife to sing out of key for them.
Obama was clearly relaxed throughout his short time here. His insistence on paying for his pint was adroit as he knew that if he got into ‘a round situation’, the rest of the European tour could be in jeopardy. He was generous with his applause after Enda’s Ein Pint, Ein Volk, Ein Finger speech. He displayed good humour even after the Taoiseach’s direct threat to 40 million Americans that their “family is here” and would be released once the requisite number of Arran jumpers are bought. All in all, it was a good seven days for Brand Ireland. Some benefits may take a while to accrue thanks to Iceland’s inability to control its tectonic plates – I know, you just can’t get the staff – but there may be an immediate bounce for one excitable and excited constituency: the J1s.
The J1 trip to the USA is a rite of passage for many students. Even those who have to return halfway through having not secured right of passage through their exams, will still have a summer to remember.
It starts with the alien world of US Immigration. It was particularly alien before 9/11 because Irish security checks were still relatively benign, meaning you were unprepared for American official paranoia even then. A common phrase heard was “But they let me through with it no problem in Dublin”
Back in 1999 we were still mewling Celtic Tiger cubs and were starting to raise our expectations about the ease of our future in Ireland, but we were willing to put in a bit of leg-work when it came to getting a toe-hold in an American summer workforce. When I went to New York, my eventual job, as a doorman in a Manhattan condominium, was got through my first cousin’s friend’s former boss’s union-buddy’s cousin.
That is the power of the Irish diaspora – to find relatively high-paying jobs for people who would struggle to tie their own shoe laces. I was part of the ring of steel protecting the residents of 157 East 72nd street. Luckily the white shirt the job required obscured the fact that I habitually managed to spill toothpaste on most of my clothes.
Minding a big door in a condominium on the Upper East Side Manhattan was relatively high up the J1 visa experiences. But at the top of the heap were the college GAA heroes who were set up with accommodation and the holy grail of jobs – painting – somewhere in the chainlink-fenced reaches of the South Chicago or other Irish heartlands. There was money for working, money for hurling and their chicks were free. It was fair reward for having the cold knuckles battered off them in the Fitzgibbon Cup the previous February.
Not everyone bothered getting a J1. Some ‘chanced it’ on a holiday visa. Just as fabled as the perfect storm of work, accommodation and sport, was the modus operandii of extremely sneaky immigration officers who hung around Immigration clearance in Shannon or New York and whose job it was said was to engage naifs in conversation to reveal the true purpose of their trip to the United States. Sometimes they would snag an unsuspecting GAA hurler on tour by pretending to be the first nice official they’d met all day:
– Hello Sir – Welcome to the United States of America, how are you today?
– Ah the grandest, sure you know the craic.
– I do indeed Sir, know the craic. Do you have any cool plans for your vacation?
– Vacation at the shtart anyway – then play a bit of hurling and supposed to be get a bit working doing painting for a fella in Yonkers
– That’s very interesting Sir, because your visa states you are only here for vacation. Can I ask you to step this wasy
– Arragh Shite.
The key to all of these connections was the American relation. I had never met my first cousin but I knew he would help. I was like a spy and my mission on foreign soil was being facilitated by embedded local operatives. As if James Bond’s mother had written a letter of introduction for him.
Our Irish connections could get us jobs with a level of responsibility we wouldn’t be let near back home. The three hundred residents of 157 East 72nd Street were unaware that often, for a week at a time, the entire security of their building lay in the hands of two Cork students who still derived enjoyment from drawing rude shapes on foggy windows. It was as if the continental United States was large enough to accommodate thousands of young Irish Works-In-Progress and still give them good jobs.
Certainly large enough even to accommodate Gavin, a friend of a friend who was well known to be ‘stone mad altogether’. In September he arrived back from his J1 with an air of a boy who had become a man and a reinforced belief that the universe was built with him in mind.
“How did you get on on the J-Wan”
“Did you get a job”
“I did biy”
“What were you doing?” (Now bear in mind that if his college class had a yearbook he would have been voted “Most Likely To Be Featured In The Local Newspaper Under The Headline: Man with no trousers bound over to the peace”)
“I was managing an airfield”
“An airfield – what do you know about managing an airfield?”
“F**k the bit but no one seemed to notice, like.”
And that is not to sneer. The J1 summer showed that while many talented people were completely ill-suited to their college degree course, their time in America hinted at how resourceful and successful they would prove to be in later life once they were unencumbered by book-learning.
Having said that though, it’s worth pointing out the downside of the American Relative Dream. It is now official: Obama is our cousin. At some stage during his session with the people of Moneygall he will have spoken to even more distant relatives than his eighth cousin, Henry. There is a risk one of his wilder ninth cousins-once-removed may have put the hard sell on Obama. “Cmere to me Barrick, the young fella is doing the J1 this year, he was hoping to go to Washington. Any chance you’d give him a shtart?”
Let us hope the following conversation doesn’t take place in a college campus somewhere in Ireland next year:
– “How did you get on on the J1 Gavin?”
-“Cushy – the American cousin got me a job”
– “What doing?”
– “Special envoy to North Korea, sure I hadn’t a clue. I was there a month when I found out we were supposed to stop them building nuclear weapons. Sure I was selling them plutonium and detonators everything. The cousin went mad – but he can’t say a bit sure, we’re fammly
Welcome to the family, Mr President.