It was all a bit like waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve. As a boy, I remember nervously scanning the skies through the window for a sign, just a glimpse of the sleigh. My mother played along, ratcheting up the excitement by telling me she’d just heard on the radio that Santa had left Belfast and was flying towards Dublin. Nothing would get me into bed quicker – but in the exhilaration of it all, a young boy couldn’t get a wink.
Waiting for Michelle Obama yesterday in Dalkey was a bit the same. As the crowd assembled, those in the know in Dalkey told anyone who’d care to listen that they were assured that she “hadn’t even left Glendalough yet”.
The excitement has been building all weekend.
During the Dalkey book festival, rumours swirled around that the first lady of the US would be rocking up for lunch. These stories were substantiated by the arrival of a very strange type of visitor to the town – a creature we’d never seen the likes of.
Last Friday afternoon, six well-built American men with baseball caps on backwards and scraggy facial hair sat in a row at the bar of Finnegans in Dalkey, drinking water. If this particular detail of the presidential security machine were really trying to convince the locals that they were nothing more than a few tourists, they might have at least pretended to have a pint.
Dalkey has been full of these shifty lads for days, mingling amongst us ahead of Michelle’s lunch with Bono at his local, Finnegans.
At 11.21am, the commotion begins.
“She’s left Glendalough, so she has. She’ll be in Kilmacanogue by now,” nods one of the sages.
“Not at all, she’ll be only at Roundwood.”
“Past Bray, I’d say.”
“Back now,” said the cops, drafted in in their hundreds.
“Mind that barrier, now.”
Two guards leaning against a lamp post flashed the contented grin of decent overtime as they tried to avoid eye contact with the CIA lads who prowled up and down Railway Road.
And in a scene that could have been straight out of Flann O’Brien’s ‘Dalkey Archive’, a red bicycle chained to the lamp post quickly became a security risk. With no one stepping up to claim the bike, the Yanks thought the worst and sent in the dogs.
The sniffer dog sniffed. Unimpressed. An unfeasibly tall secret service man gave the offending bike a wide berth and barked something into his sleeve. Still the hound sniffed.
To cheers from the assembled throng, an elderly local with a towel under his arm, just back from his daily dip in the Ramparts, claimed the bike, oblivious to the fact that his steed had nearly caused an airstrike to be called in on Sorrento Road.
The local dignitaries and bigwigs who’d actually made the cut to lunch lined up in their finest outside the pub to be counted in meticulously by the CIA.
By this stage, the town’s savants were beginning to reveal themselves as experts on all classes of security patterns that pertained to the first lady’s entourage.
“They’ll be here in blacked-out Chevrolets,” we were assured by one.
“Only Chevys, and three exactly the same so you wouldn’t know who was in what one,” he warned.
The crowd knew something was up when Bono arrived with his wife and children.
Only a matter of time now.
The children were beside themselves. My son and his mates hung out the window of our office directly opposite Finnegans, possibly the best seats in the house.
Imagine, you are an 11-year-old boy and in your town are helicopters, secret service agents, the CIA, grown men talking into their own sleeves and hundreds of cops, cop cars, cops on motorbikes and huge Americans in dark shades scanning the skies, the tops of buildings and checking manholes.
It was ‘The Matrix’, ‘Call of Duty’ and James Bond all rolled into one. The phones and cameras were at the ready, everything would be documented, everyone would have their story to tell about the day Michelle came to Dalkey.
The drone of the chopper as it hovered above Castle Street signaled something major was about to happen. Then two cops on BMWs sped up Sorrento Road. The wail of sirens was followed by a phalanx of seven cars, which swerved around the corner.
The agents, strangely dressed in chinos and blazers, leapt out of the cars, guns primed, and faced up to the confused locals who, rather than surging forward, actually stepped back at the sight of these lads.
The door of the blacked-out Chevvie in the middle of the convoy opened.
Out bounded Michelle and headed straight into Finnegans without a head turn or even a wave. In a split second, she was gone.
Meanwhile, 150-odd miles away in Enniskillen, her husband was putting the final touches to a communique, which called for a change in the way corporation tax is paid and the way multinationals treat their worldwide income.
While there was nothing concrete and the statement used the word “should” rather than will, if this leads to a transformation in the way corporate tax is treated, the day Michelle came to Dalkey might have a much more dramatic impact on Ireland’s economic fortunes then might initially be appreciated.