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Incident at Ballybunion

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.


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