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Incident at Ballybunion

Quilter can afford to laugh now. Last year he sold his nightclub for nearly $2.5 million. "Clinton's visit added about half a million pounds to the value of the place," he claims, though it's not clear exactly how. The riches have not diminished the Irishman's enthusiasm for promoting the connection between Ballybunion and Bally Bill, however. Quilter was one of those responsible for the town's latest love letter to the former commander in chief, a proposed peace park in the village to honor his work in Northern Ireland. The Irish prime minister's office shot down initial plans for the $3.5 million park, but the idea still has life. The site of the proposed park--in the shadow of the sixteenth-century ruin of Ballybunion Castle--is just an overgrown lot cluttered with rubble and empty beer cans. Yet the ocean views are stunning, and word is that the peace park idea is simply a way of preventing the construction of an apartment block on the scenic spot. "There's some truth to that," Quilter confesses.

In December 2000, Clinton made a farewell presidential journey to Ireland, focusing on salvaging his legacy with the faltering peace process north of the border. This time the itinerary did not include a visit to Ballybunion. Quilter was disappointed, but not as much as he would have been if Clinton hadn't joked during the trip to the Irish prime minister that after leaving office, he wanted the job of head greenskeeper at Ballybunion.

And then, this past May, Clinton did return to Ballybunion--the first of what Quilter hopes will be many visits as a private citizen. As before, Clinton was transported directly from the Kerry Airport in Farranfore to the golf club, where his planned eighteen holes turned into thirty-six. It surely must have struck Clinton as ironic that he was welcomed with open arms at Ballybunion--he was made an honorary member during his first visit in 1998--but was finding it much more difficult to join one of the select clubs in Westchester County, New York, where he set up home with his wife, the senator. On the first tee, his playing partner Dick Spring warned him away from the cemetery to the right of the fairway. "Yeah," Clinton replied with a smile. "I've come back from graveyards before."

After his extended round, Clinton dropped by Main Street to meet and greet for an hour. "'Twas f---ing brilliant!" exclaims Quilter, who finally met the man of his schemes. A club member introduced him to the former president as the man behind the statue. "He thanked me for it," Quilter says, without noting that many of his neighbors have not.

The ex-president's number-one fan then produced a photo of himself with Roger Clinton. "He laughed and asked me where I'd met him," Quilter says.

On the same trip, a real estate developer made Clinton an interesting offer: the free use of a penthouse apartment in an upscale housing development to be built near the Ballybunion Golf Club (if and when the project is ever completed). The developer, Brian McCormick, claims the offer was made "as a small token of our appreciation for his contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process," but, well, it also couldn't hurt the prestige of the property to list the former president as a tenant.

Clinton put the penthouse plan on hold, reportedly so that the U.S. Secret Service could vet the complex--and then this summer, rumors started circulating that Clinton is buying a house in Kenmare, a seaside village two hours from Ballybunion.

Quilter, meanwhile, waits for another visit and takes comfort in small things--a news-wire photograph of Clinton carving a Thanksgiving turkey while wearing a Ballybunion sweater, for instance, or the $9,000 price that the glove Clinton wore during his first round at Ballybunion fetched in an auction in Dublin, or the fact that the statue of Clinton has not yet been vandalized. "Not a daub of lipstick on it," he says proudly.

Altogether, in two visits Bill Clinton has now spent a total of two hours in the village of Ballybunion. That doesn't make it a town called Hope, but in the land of blarney, it's more than enough for the likes of Frank Quilter to work with.


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