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.