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.
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.