IT was smiles all round at Aras an Uachtarain on Monday when Kilkenny youngster Colm Dunne met President Barack Obama.
The nine-year-old who is a third class pupil in Scoil Bhride in Paulstown and lives in Gowran was one of three children chosen to meet with the US President.
After ringing the Peace Bell during a tree-planting ceremony Colm was keen to get back to his classmates at Scoil Bhride to tell them about the momentous occasion. Although there was tight security and media from all over the world present at the tree-planting ceremony was an intimate occasion with only 40 guests and 30 journalists present. The images of Colm chatting with President Obama were transmitted instanteously around the globe and his aunts in New York and Pennsylvania watched him on two different television networks. Mr Obama shovelled soil over an oak in the grounds of Aras an Uachtarian as Colm rang the peace bell and the President praised him for ‘doing an outstanding job’
His father, Tony told the Kilkenny People that it was a day that the family would never forget and that they had only been asked a few days previously. “We were out shopping on Thursday when we got a phone call from the National Council of the Blind asking if Colm would come up and meet President Obama and President McAleese. He didn’t have to be asked twice. He knew it was very important and it really sunk in over the weekend. There was great excitement in the school on Friday when Colm went in and told his teacher and friends,” he added.
Tony, his wife Eileen, Colm and his eight-year brother Peter, who is in second class at Scoil Bhride all travelled to Dublin on Sunday evening and spent the night at Bewleys Hotel. “Because of the tight security there was only one adult allowed to attend the ceremony. I wanted Eileen to go but in the ened we tossed a coin for it and I ended up going in. Myself and Colm had to be at the Phoneix Park at 7.45am and we were moved to a welcoming hall at 8.45am. There we met with President McAleese’s advisor Maura Grant who did a rehearsal with the children. She was a true professional,” said Tony.
As Colm and his father waited for the arrival of America’s First Citizen Tony explained how the scene was similar to something one would see on the televiosion. “It was absolutely the same as watching something on the television. The presence of the Secret Service was immense,” he said adding that there was a ‘bit of concern’ about the wet and windy weather conditions.
A few moments later President Obama and his wife Michelle arrived and were brought over and introduced to Colm by President McAleese. “She told him that Colm was from Kilkenny which she said was a great hurling county and he acknowledged that and then President Obama spent a few minutes chatting with Colm. We both really enjoyed the occasion and it was relaxed,” he said.
Colm is no stranger to Aras an Uachtarain having been invited to a tea party there in 2007.
After the tree-planting ceremony Colm and the family travelled back to Kilkenny as Colm was keen to share the fun with his friends in school. “He knew that his classmates were watching the ceremony on the television and he wanted to share the moment with them. He was delighted to get back down to school and he went around to all the classes to tell them about the experience.”
Tony admitted that it was a great honour and an unforgettable experience. “When the two presidents came into view it was a hair-raising experience. Both of them have a serious aura about them. It was fantastic,” he said.
Margaret McDonagh and Onyedika Ukachukwu, who are both from Dublin were also chosen to ring the Peace Bell.
The Peace Bell was unveiled in the grounds of Aras in 2008 by Mrs McAleese to mark the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. It has been rung on only two other occasions - the day it was unveiled and when a tree was planted by the Queen a few feet away last week. Mr Obama’s Irish oak stood about 50ft from a sequoia planted in 1963 by President John F Kennedy and close to where a tree was planted by former president Bill Clinton.