Ballybunion & Bill: A Love Story, Kind Of.

Almost 20 years ago, I went to Ballybunion, County Kerry, to write about the ‘Clinton Cult’ that had sprouted in the village, where the world’s only statue to America’s forty-second president had been erected. This story was published in the now-defunct T&L Golf in 2001.

William Jefferson Clinton recognized a good omen when the afternoon sun finally broke through the slate gray skies as his motorcade neared Ballybunion Golf Club.

It was September 5, 1998. Back home, the impeachment drama was reaching a crescendo: The president was just three weeks removed from admitting his affair on television to a rapt and revolted nation; only two days earlier he had been denounced as “immoral” on the floor of the Senate by Joseph Lieberman. Yet the sexual shenanigans holding his fellow Americans in thrall were proving to be of little consequence in rural Ireland.

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Bill Clinton gets a pointer from the legendary Christy O’Connor Sr. during his first round at Ballybunion Golf Club in 1998.

Sweeping along the freshly resurfaced laneways of County Kerry, the president saw hedgerows lined with colorful billboards declaring ‘Ballybunion Welcomes Bill Clinton’. In the town itself, the Stars and Stripes seemed to hang from every window, with twelve in particular conspicuously fluttering atop a rundown nightclub. “That was such a special day for me,” Clinton would later remember. “Every little Irish village I went through on my way to Ballybunion had people in the streets, and all their stores had been repainted. It was just so beautiful and so unbelievable.” 

Even the name proving so inescapable at home was discreetly excised from the celebrations, as Monica’s Hair Salon became, for one day, the President’s Shop, hawking coffee mugs and T-shirts. “Beautiful,” sighed Maria Finucane, the local who has organized the Ballybunion International Bachelor Festival for twenty years. “The village will never look so good again.”

To an embattled American president fighting for his political life, the little Irish village was indeed a blessedly benign sight. Of course, he was oblivious to the forces that even at that moment were hard at work to use the presidential visit for their own purposes. In particular, he had yet to meet the wily Irish huckster who, though Clinton didn’t know it, was attempting to turn the First Golfer into Ballybunion’s own Local Hero.

 

The village of Ballybunion, population about 1,500, sits atop the rugged coastline where the River Shannon meets the Atlantic Ocean, about as close to America as you can get and still be in Ireland. In summer, Main Street–really the only street–lures a few golfers seeking shelter from the usually harsh elements in bars like Shortis and Tony’s 19th. In winter, it is so desolate you can almost hear dogs barking in the Bronx. 

Indeed, as the booming ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy turns Ireland into one of the world’s leading software producers, rural communities on the west coast have largely been left to trade on the Ireland of picture postcards: the red-haired colleen dancing a jig with fiddlers playing by a turf fire. County Kerry is Ireland’s top destination, but most visitors go south of Ballybunion to the stunning Dingle Peninsula, where the movies Ryan’s Daughter and Far and Away were filmed. The one thing the community has going for it is a golf course that is the envy of the world. 

Ballybunion Golf Club is more than one hundred years old but was essentially discovered for the rest of the world by five-time British Open champion Tom Watson in 1981, when he played a practice round there that drew a gallery estimated at two thousand. “Tom really put Ballybunion on the map,” says Brian McCarthy, a former club captain. Now it’s a bona fide links mecca, and club officials estimate that more than half of all visiting players are American. (Not all of them leave: A California man is buried in the ancient cemetery adjacent to the first fairway.) 

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Ballybunion Golf Club.

Somewhere along the line, an enthusiastic American golfer named Bill Clinton developed an interest in the course. Although he had never been there, he apparently owned a course guide and as president often wore a cap that read Ballybunion Golf Club, Established 1893. (Once, the story goes, the hat was lost, and staffers had to scramble to locate a replacement.) By all accounts, Clinton’s interest coalesced into concrete desire on Martha’s Vineyard in 1994, when Dick Spring, Ireland’s then deputy prime minister, took advantage of a break in the negotiations for a cease-fire in Northern Ireland to invite the president to play the legendary links.

Clinton’s rapport with the Irish dates back to the 1992 campaign, when he promised a U.S. entry visa for Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA-allied Sinn Féin party. Despite howls of protest from the British government, Clinton issued that permit in January 1994, drawing Adams in from a lifetime in the cold. The gamble paid off when Adams delivered a historic IRA cease-fire seven months later. Presidential egos demand a victory lap at such moments, so Clinton made his first visit to Ireland in November 1995–and with Spring’s invitation in hand, the president planned to make his last stop on the trip a round of golf at Ballybunion. 

The welcome Clinton received in Ireland that year outstripped even those accorded earlier to Pope John Paul II (whose plea for peace fell on deaf ears) and President John F. Kennedy (whose family had not long before departed County Wexford). It was in every respect a hero’s reception, unfettered by matters of principle or realpolitic. To wit: When one group, during Clinton’s speech in Derry, tried to unfurl a banner protesting capital punishment, they were branded “a disgrace” by others in the crowd. “You’re bringing politics into it!” was the rebuke.

Naturally the Ballybunion townsfolk were agog. A presidential visit meant a rare chance to have the town recognized by the world at large, which hadn’t happened since 1919, when the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company set up shop at Ballybunion to send the first wireless telephone call from Europe to North America. So, just as naturally, they were dismayed when the visit was canceled at the last minute because of the deployment of American troops to Bosnia. Making the best of things, a banner-carrying delegation drove four hours to Clinton’s farewell rally at College Green in Dublin. The banners read ‘Ballybunion Backs Bill Clinton ’96’, and not only did the president somehow spot one of the signs in the sea of around 100,000 people, but he also paused long enough to point it out and say, “I will return to Ballybunion,” to thunderous applause.

As political promises go, this one was not in the same league as General Douglas MacArthur’s World War II vow to return to the Philippines. But to one man in the crowd, the fellow who had led the Ballybunion locals to Dublin, it was all he needed to hear.

 

Frank Quilter, 54, is an unimposing, paunchy character with a wide, gap-toothed grin and an accent that strangles every drop of life from the letter S. The owner, at the time, of a roller rink and nightclub in Ballybunion, Quilter has made it his mission in life to promote his adopted home of twenty years. His antics have included a proposal to transform nearby Nun’s Strand, a beautiful stretch of beach within sight of a convent, into an oasis for nudists. He knew it would never happen, but the controversy made Ballybunion national news for days. He recognized the president’s promise as the promotional opportunity of a lifetime. The fact that Quilter himself had never played golf, at Ballybunion or anywhere else, was irrelevant. Over the next three years, he would mount a relentless campaign of arm-twisting and publicity stunts to make sure Clinton delivered on his vow.

For all his parochial promoting, however, Quilter is a refreshingly up-front huckster. Within minutes of our meeting at the Presidents Inn, he tells me how he narrowly escaped conviction for supplying growth hormones to cattle farmers. “I nearly got jail,” he whispers conspiratorially with a grin. “I was lucky.” Another episode he merrily describes was the profitable and (because this is Ireland) controversial installation in his nightclub of a condom machine ten years earlier. “I was getting twenty percent of every one,” he says proudly. “The only place selling more than me was the University of Limerick.”

Not all of his neighbors were amused. Quilter does not generally enjoy the highest marks for credibility among the townspeople–he grew up in Lixnaw, an even smaller village six miles away, making him a mere “blow-in”–so as he launched his Clinton campaign, many were dubious. “When Quilter started talking about Clinton coming to Ballybunion, everyone thought he was off his head again,” recalls Mike Joyce, who runs a news store on Main Street.

But Quilter was tolerated, if not encouraged, simply because the town needed the tourists. Even the thousands of golfers who have made the pilgrimage to play Ballybunion have mostly stayed someplace else.

“We don’t see a lot of Americans staying here,” says Martina Farrell, who works in a golf antiques store in the village. “They like luxury hotels and Jacuzzis, but we don’t have that.” As former club captain McCarthy puts it, “They come, play the course and leave.” 

Quilter’s first step was to work his political connections in America. Twenty-two years ago, the Irishman gave up drinking and replaced his passion for alcohol with one for politics, both local–he supports the Fine Gael party–and in the “next parish” of America. He finagled an invitation to the 1996 Democratic Convention in Chicago as a guest of Senator Christopher Dodd, to whom he has regularly sent smoked Irish salmon. “I shared a limousine with Roger Clinton and met Ted Kennedy,” Quilter boasts. On the convention floor he handed out bags of sand and pieces of the “auld sod” and brandished one of the ‘Ballybunion Backs Bill Clinton’ banners.

As that fall’s presidential election neared, Quilter came up with another stunt. He had one hundred playground balls imprinted with the now-familiar slogan and arranged for townspeople, local businessmen and the former Irish prime minister Albert Reynolds to kick them off the Kerry cliffs into the Atlantic–with the Irish media watching. The first person to find a ball washed up on America’s eastern seaboard was to win a flight to Ireland, but the balls were still in Irish waters when Quilter sent one to a friend in Boston. “If anyone finds a ball, you found that one the day before!” Quilter told his friend then. “We made sure there was no f—ing winner!” he says today.

So far as Quilter or anyone else could tell, the stunts were having no effect on Clinton–at least, they received no indication of interest from the White House. But then, in April 1998, political leaders in Northern Ireland signed the Good Friday Agreement, a tortuously worded document that promised an end to a thirty-year conflict that had claimed more than three thousand lives. Clinton had midwifed the deal in a series of middle-of-the-night phone calls from the White House to Stormont Castle in Belfast, where his emissary, former senator George Mitchell, was chairing contentious peace talks. A few serious setbacks followed, most notably an August 1998 bomb attack by an IRA splinter group that killed twenty-eight people. Nevertheless, the president announced in late summer the second Irish trip of his administration, to celebrate the accord, scheduled for September. And once again, a round of golf at Ballybunion was included in the itinerary. 

Quilter, of course, was gleeful. With Clinton’s arrival just five weeks away, he took it upon himself to make sure the visit was memorable in every possible way. And this time he had some help from the people of Ballybunion. Several notoriously potholed stretches of County Kerry roadway were repaved in anticipation of the visit. In deference to Clinton’s ongoing scandal, Monica’s Hair Salon got its makeover. American flags–and a few Arkansas ones–were provided for street-side windows. And welcome posters were printed in bulk. “We had a poster on every shagging pole in the village!” Quilter exclaims. Those signboards are now something of a collectible. “Yanks might give you $10 for one depending on their humor,” he says. “There’s even a bar in Saigon with one.”

Ballybunion’s big surprise, however, was the commissioning of a statue of Clinton–an honor he has still not been accorded at home–in the hope he might personally unveil it. Quilter recruited two local women to go door-to-door to collect the $39,000 price tag from business owners–many of whom coughed up two hundred pounds or more–in the hope it would become a tourist attraction.

By September 4, the eve of Clinton’s visit, Ballybunion was ready–almost. There were a few wee problems. First of all, the statue of Clinton preparing to tee off had not been finished. The sculptor, a Cork artist named Sean McCarthy, had only managed to make a plaster-of-paris model. Undaunted, Quilter had the artist coat the white plaster model with boot polish, and then Quilter and his crew loaded it into a truck for transport. On a poor road, the truck hit a pothole and a hand broke off. “Whatever you do, put that hand back on, or he can’t play golf!” Quilter ordered. Finally, at dusk, the plaster-of-paris statue was mounted, with its hand repaired, on a marble plinth in the center of town, a short putt from the two-story police station. Quilter and his cronies could only pray that it wouldn’t rain. 

The second unfortunate snafu was that no one had actually told Clinton that the people of Ballybunion were expecting him. Like most American visitors to the area, Clinton had intended simply to play the course and then depart without setting foot in the village. 

On the morning of September 5, fully expecting Clinton to pass through town on his way from the airport to the golf course, hundreds of people from Ballybunion and the surrounding countryside lined the streets of the village hoping to catch a glimpse of the president and his motorcade. No dice. When word reached the village that Clinton had somehow bypassed town and was already at the links, there was naturally some consternation. But in general Irish optimism prevailed. Clinton would still be coming to town after the round to unveil the statue–wouldn’t he? Hadn’t there been reports that the night before, U.S. Secret Service personnel had slipped into town to seal all the manholes against terrorists? A fair number of onlookers retreated to the pubs to wait out the delay, but many others clung stubbornly to their positions in the street so as not to miss a moment of the biggest event in Ballybunion’s history.

Meanwhile, the round of golf went off splendidly despite overcast skies. Dozens of spectators watched from Sandhill Road, which borders the course’s opening holes, and cheered loudly whenever Clinton swung.

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The 42nd President at Ballybunion, 1998.

Joined in his five-ball by Christy O’Connor Sr., the veteran of ten Ryder Cups who is known to Irish golf fans simply as “Himself,” Clinton shot a steady ninety-five and appeared to enjoy himself immensely–no doubt relieved to be far away from the tireless scrutiny of Kenneth Starr’s grand jury. “I was finally able to live out a dream, probably a dream of any golfer, and play at the historic and beautiful Ballybunion Golf Club,” Clinton would later write, unrevealingly, in an e-mailed response to questions from T&L Golf.

Mike Scanlon, 55, is the veteran caddie at Ballybunion who carried Clinton’s clubs that day. “He’s a fine striker of the ball but hasn’t really got a short game,” the caddie says of the president. Scanlon also claims that there were no presidential mulligans. “He has a reputation for dropping balls, but none of us were going to say anything,” says Scanlon. 

Behind the scenes, however, things were not nearly so calm. During the round, a member of Clinton’s staff was made aware of the waiting throngs in town and broke the news to the president. Ever the politician and no doubt encouraged by the generally fond reception he was getting in Ireland, Clinton changed his schedule. “I truly had no idea until then,” the president wrote to T&L Golf of the news, “and decided to visit the village after the game.”

Late in the afternoon, Clinton’s motorcade finally pulled into Ballybunion. “There must have been hundreds of people there to greet me,” he recalled. “I was so incredibly touched by their warmth and support.” Gamely, he posed for photographs by the statue, which, especially in its plaster-of-paris-and-boot-polish state, bore only the slightest resemblance to the leader of the free world. Clinton praised it nonetheless. “I could not believe how wonderful the exquisite sculpture by Cork artist Sean McCarthy was,” he gushed to T&L Golf. “I was just delighted with it.” 

The people of Ballybunion were thrilled. According to Quilter, one elderly woman fainted after her presidential handshake. Quilter himself spent the afternoon sequestered in a nearby bar, cackling and crowing– but when he went outside to view his triumph, he couldn’t get anywhere near the man. “The street was so mobbed, I just went back inside to watch it on television,” he says. Fifty-five minutes after he’d arrived, Clinton went the way of most American golfers–out of town–and the statue was quickly removed before it had a chance to disintegrate.

 

Three years have passed since Clinton’s fairy tale visit to Ballybunion, and, alas, not much has changed. The golf course continues to thrive but not so the village–most visitors still skip town from the eighteenth green. “Before Clinton came, we were told that Ballybunion wouldn’t be able to hold the tourists,” grouses one local woman, “but it’s worse that business has gotten.”

Ironically, one reason might well be the statue, which was indeed eventually cast in bronze and permanently installed in the village square. Ballybunion’s hoteliers and bar owners are discovering, to their surprise, that many and maybe even most of those would-be American tourists are no fans of the United States’ forty-second president. “You wouldn’t believe the venom,” Daniel Curran said recently, leaning over the bar of the Presidents Inn, which he opened two years ago. “They hate him!” In fact, the night before, Curran’s daughter, Anne Marie, had tried to defend Clinton to a group of Americans. “You don’t forgive!” the twenty-two-year-old shouted. 

“We do forgive, but we don’t forget that he lied to the American people!” returned one of the visitors.

“Sure, he’s the best president you ever had,” Curran interjected. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone!”

“I am without sin!” announced another visitor, producing a business card as evidence. He was a priest.

Curran’s daughter was incredulous: “Jesus, what kind of a priest flashes his card?”

Such scenes have become familiar of an evening in Ballybunion. “Republicans are chipping away at Clinton all the time when they come here,” Quilter chuckles. “It drives them mad.” 

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The controversial statue of Clinton, outside the small police station in Ballybunion.

Quilter can afford to laugh now. Last year he sold his nightclub for nearly $2.5 million. “Clinton’s visit added about half a million pounds to the value of the place,” he claims, though it’s not clear exactly how. The riches have not diminished the Irishman’s enthusiasm for promoting the connection between Ballybunion and Bally Bill, however. Quilter was one of those responsible for the town’s latest love letter to the former commander in chief, a proposed peace park in the village to honor his work in Northern Ireland. The Irish prime minister’s office shot down initial plans for the $3.5 million park, but the idea still has life. The site of the proposed park–in the shadow of the sixteenth-century ruin of Ballybunion Castle–is just an overgrown lot cluttered with rubble and empty beer cans. Yet the ocean views are stunning, and word is that the peace park idea is simply a way of preventing the construction of an apartment block on the scenic spot. “There’s some truth to that,” Quilter confesses.

In December 2000, Clinton made a farewell presidential journey to Ireland, focusing on salvaging his legacy with the faltering peace process north of the border. This time the itinerary did not include a visit to Ballybunion. Quilter was disappointed, but not as much as he would have been if Clinton hadn’t joked during the trip to the Irish prime minister that after leaving office, he wanted the job of head greenskeeper at Ballybunion.

And then, this past May, Clinton did return to Ballybunion–the first of what Quilter hopes will be many visits as a private citizen. As before, Clinton was transported directly from the Kerry Airport in Farranfore to the golf club, where his planned eighteen holes turned into thirty-six. It surely must have struck Clinton as ironic that he was welcomed with open arms at Ballybunion–he was made an honorary member during his first visit in 1998–but was finding it much more difficult to join one of the select clubs in Westchester County, New York, where he set up home with his wife, the senator. On the first tee, his playing partner Dick Spring warned him away from the cemetery to the right of the fairway. “Yeah,” Clinton replied with a smile. “I’ve come back from graveyards before.”

After his extended round, Clinton dropped by Main Street to meet and greet for an hour. “‘Twas f—ing brilliant!” exclaims Quilter, who finally met the man of his schemes. A club member introduced him to the former president as the man behind the statue. “He thanked me for it,” Quilter says, without noting that many of his neighbors have not.

The ex-president’s number-one fan then produced a photo of himself with Roger Clinton. “He laughed and asked me where I’d met him,” Quilter says.

On the same trip, a real estate developer made Clinton an interesting offer: the free use of a penthouse apartment in an upscale housing development to be built near the Ballybunion Golf Club (if and when the project is ever completed). The developer, Brian McCormick, claims the offer was made “as a small token of our appreciation for his contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process,” but, well, it also couldn’t hurt the prestige of the property to list the former president as a tenant.

Clinton put the penthouse plan on hold, reportedly so that the U.S. Secret Service could vet the complex–and then this summer, rumors started circulating that Clinton is buying a house in Kenmare, a seaside village two hours from Ballybunion. 

Quilter, meanwhile, waits for another visit and takes comfort in small things–a news-wire photograph of Clinton carving a Thanksgiving turkey while wearing a Ballybunion sweater, for instance, or the $9,000 price that the glove Clinton wore during his first round at Ballybunion fetched in an auction in Dublin, or the fact that the statue of Clinton has not yet been vandalized. “Not a daub of lipstick on it,” he says proudly.

Altogether, in two visits Bill Clinton has now spent a total of two hours in the village of Ballybunion. That doesn’t make it a town called Hope, but in the land of blarney, it’s more than enough for the likes of Frank Quilter to work with.

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