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Green and White House US Presidents in Ireland: Tales of pints, surreal encounters and spooks revealed

New book takes an amusing look at the special relationship one tiny nation has with the world's greatest superpower

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Ronald Reagan in Ballyporeen

Ronald Reagan in Ballyporeen

Ronald Reagan in Ballyporeen

Shortly after Sunday mass in early August 1994, residents in Ballybunion, Co. Kerry, were startled by the roar of six black military helicopters flying low across the town in formation.

When President Bill Clinton's plans to play a round of golf on the town's legendary links course was announced in the following weeks, the penny dropped.

Locals would later be told the pilots were photographing the street and casing out possible sniper locations.

Secret Service details travel weeks ahead of their president to foreign locations to investigate the area for terrorist threats and would-be assassins.

But the black-suited operatives - whose sole job is to protect the Potus and his family - have had a few bemusing encounters in Ireland, which are captured in a new book, The Green and White House, by journalist Lynne Kelleher.

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Barack and Michelle Obama enjoy a pint in Ollie Hayes’ pub

Barack and Michelle Obama enjoy a pint in Ollie Hayes’ pub

Barack and Michelle Obama enjoy a pint in Ollie Hayes’ pub

 

Straight out of an episode of Father Ted, the tales involve everything from a suspect Aran cardigan, a bumper catch of salmon, and a chatty hotel manager whose wry joke almost sparked a security scare.

The Green and White House - which traces the Irish links to nearly two dozen US presidents - contains first-hand accounts of US leaders from JFK to Reagan to Biden as they descended on their ancestral birthplaces in rural outposts with a small army of agents.

The book takes an amusing look at the special relationship one tiny nation has with the world's greatest superpower and relays the surreal nature of these presidential mini-breaks.

Secure communication is a thread running through all the stays, even before the advent of the internet and cybersecurity.

The Irish people who hosted Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and Obama have told the author about the highly complicated communications system previously installed in houses, hotels, and even a pub kitchen by the Secret Service to ensure there is always a direct line to the White House.

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Lynne with her new book

Lynne with her new book

Lynne with her new book

 

The most incongruous example was the white telephone connected to the Oval Office sitting on a box in a cemetery containing President Nixon's ancestors during his visit to their graves in Timahoe in Kildare in 1970.

In the lead-up to President Obama's visit in 2011, Moneygall publican Ollie Hayes - who poured the president's famous pint of Guinness - found himself and his family eating in his sitting room for two weeks before the US leader's arrival as his kitchen was turned into a secure communications centre crawling with agents.

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People in and around the president have reported surreal encounters with the elite force of men and women who guarded the American commanders-in-chief.

In the book, the first cousin of President Kennedy, Tom Fitzgerald, who counted Rose Fitzgerald as his aunt, remembers his father getting the shock of his life when he was burning rubbish in his garden just after JFK was elected.

Three agents came out of the trees announcing they were there for the family bible, which originally came from Bruff in Limerick.

Tom Fitzgerald, who was about 20 years younger than JFK, remembers going to the inauguration and being struck by the young navy lieutenant next to him with a briefcase attached to his wrist, which he thought had the nuclear codes.

A number of onlookers commented on a military or navy-type officer near the president at all times.

In one amusing incident related in the Green and White House, the former manager of Ashford Castle, Rory Murphy, remembers being asked by a politician to get a book signed by President Reagan, which had already been signed by Kennedy.

As he waited in nervous silence outside the Reagan suite, next to a big, tall man outside with a bag, the manager found himself asking: 'Is that the important bag with all the codes? What would happen if I tried to steal it?'

The guard said, 'Sir I'd have to shoot you'. Apparently, he followed up the grave pronouncement with a smile.

Security was unprecedented during the Reagan visit to Ashford Castle, as he had survived an assassination attempt in the first few months of his presidency.

A huge tank was parked in the castle's yard and a huge number of Secret Service and an estimated 1,400 Irish guards formed a ring of steel around the Mayo estate in June 1984.

The IRA was active in Ireland at the time, but threats were deemed to come from the Middle East in the Reagan era, not from republican or loyalist terrorists operating in the country.

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US Secret Service agents working to protect Joe Biden

US Secret Service agents working to protect Joe Biden

US Secret Service agents working to protect Joe Biden

 

The 13th-century castle - complete with turrets, a moat, and sumptuous suites - had already played host to luminaries such as King George V, Prince Rainier III and Princess Grace of Monaco, and Oscar Wilde.

The Irish-American castle owner, John A. Mulcahy, a major Republican donor, who was hosting the president, had bought the property in the 1960s before adding a new wing with opulent new suites.

The Mayo village found itself catapulted into 20th-century telecommunications as their old operator-facilitated phones were cast off for direct lines.

The key to two locked drawers in an antique sideboard in the presidential suite that dated back to the days when it was owned by the Guinness family had long been lost, but it was discovered after the visit that the ancient locks had been carefully unpicked by the Secret Service during the stay.

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Bill Clinton at the Shelbourne Hotel

Bill Clinton at the Shelbourne Hotel

Bill Clinton at the Shelbourne Hotel

 

Rory Murphy, Ashford Castle manager, remembers the White House press arriving in a Black Hawk helicopter on the front lawn for a photocall with the president.

A few minutes into the press conference, the quick-fire questions were interrupted by a commotion at the water's edge.

"An anti-personnel steel net installed by the Secret Service in the river below to catch intruders began to shake, causing two rubber-suited US navy divers to investigate before emerging with a flapping fish," says Kelleher.

"By the end of the visit, the net intended to snare would-be terrorists had landed a bumper catch of salmon."

The head agent for the visit was Barbara Riggs, one of the first women to be sworn into the Secret Service. She ended up protecting six presidents during her career, including Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush

"O'Farrell's Pub where the movie star president was due to visit was given the full Secret Service treatment, including a hand-knitted Aran cardigan which ended up being treated as a suspect device," says Kelleher.

The Green and White House by Lynne Kelleher is published by Bonnier and available in bookstores nationwide.

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