More than a year after President Reagan visited this pastoral Tipperary village where his great-grandfather was born 156 years ago, the Ronald Reagan Lounge is doing a brisk business in Reagan T-shirts and such dubious memorabilia as packets of sod from the family farm at 50 cents each.
The lounge and its souvenir shop are featured attractions of the O'Farrell Pub, leading tavern in a village that boasts six pubs, one for every 50 of its presumably thirsty inhabitants. Before Reagan visited Ballyporeen, which means "town of the small potatoes," it was unknown to most Irish citizens, and pub owner John O'Farrell is frank to say that Reagan's trip here June 3, 1984, "rescued Ballyporeen from oblivion."
Reagan's visit provided tourist income for a community as remote and isolated from the center of Irish life as Plains, Ga., is from New York City. Even during a wet Irish summer, when crops and tourism suffered, busloads of Americans and Europeans arrived to drink at the O'Farrell Pub and buy souvenirs at Con Donovan's store. The best-selling item there is a busy T-shirt that displays a shamrock, the Irish and American flags and the date of Reagan's sentimental journey to his ancestral home.
A more lasting attraction for tourists who wander beyond the main street is the picturesque Church of the Assumption, where Reagan's great-grandfather Michael was christened in 1829, a symbolic year that marks Catholic emancipation and a prefamine political and religious renaissance in Ireland.
A year after Reagan's visit, there are warm memories in Ballyporeen. The words used to describe Reagan -- "friendly" and "amiable" -- are remarkably similar to those used by Americans who have met the president. Reagan's personality, always his biggest asset, did not desert him in Ireland.
Beyond Ballyporeen, a favorable impression of Reagan's visit also lingers. Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald, politically a light year to the left of Reagan, told me that he liked him and appreciated his "constuctive" role in talking to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher about an Anglo-Irish agreement that would improve the lot of Northern Ireland's Roman Catholic minority.
Although Reagan's Central America policies remain unpopular, a prominent Irish official said the president was no longer viewed as the "right-wing bomb thrower" that many thought him to be when he took office. The official added, however, that large doubts remain about the wisdom of Reagan's missile-defense proposal known as "Star Wars" or his ability to deal effectively with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Irish journalists were blunter. They, too, were taken by Reagan's personality and share a national pride in his Irish roots, but were unimpressed with his intellectual ability.
"Sure he's a nice guy," one said. "But is he up to dealing with Gorbachev? The Russians have stolen a march on you in Europe on Star Wars, and the Reagan people don't seem to realize that."
What struck this reporter about the attitudes of the Irish, who are on the periphery of world affairs, is how closely they resemble views of those who have a close view of Reagan as he prepares for his November summit meeting with Gorbachev.
White House officials are so sensitive about the view that Reagan is inadequately prepared that spokesman Larry Speakes publicly upbraided network correspondents for reporting, in Knoxville, Tenn., that the president had corrected a minor misunderstanding about a Soviet proposal because his advisers had recommended that he do so. Speakes insisted Reagan had acted on his own.
Although there is no evidence to contradict Speakes, the sensitivity is revealing. At every new conference Reagan displays important gaps in his understanding, and one of his advisers' enduring concerns is that these could become a problem at Geneva.
In the United States, as in Ireland, Reagan has succeeded in dispelling the bomb-thrower image. The question that remains throughout the world is how competently he can deal with complex arms-control issues and Gorbachev's evident skills.
Reaganism of the Week: Relating in Knoxville how foreign countries had benefited from having their industry rebuilt after World War II, Reagan said: "Well, we don't have to bomb everything here to catch up with them, just do what several of you have been suggesting . . . to have policies that we are sure are not going to hinder the practices of the free economy."