Obama hosts an Irish host in the White House
By Susan Falvella Garraty
The Irish Echo
March 18, 2009
The White House --- Ireland can be confusing to the politically uninitiated. But President Barack Obama managed to host, with some aplomb, the visiting taoiseach , Northern Ireland's first minister and its deputy first minister, under the White House roof Tuesday.
Indeed the president tried mighty hard to "deserve an apostrophe" in the Obama name by hosting and participating in a variety of celebrations on St. Patrick's Day the likes of which have not been seen since the Clinton years.
The White House flung open its doors to include not just the political leaders but many business and community leaders people from Ireland and Irish America.
And it wasn't just all going on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams at the State Department.
President Obama presided over three separate St. Patrick's Day events at the White House, including an evening reception. He even dyed the fountain water green on the White House grounds in a salute to his hometown of Chicago where the river is dyed green each St. Patrick's Day.
During a busy morning, Obama stood in the Roosevelt Room and announced his nomination of Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney as the next American ambassador to Ireland.
"Dan Rooney is an unwavering supporter of Irish peace, culture, and education and I have every confidence he and Secretary Clinton will ensure America's continued close and unique partnership with Ireland in the years ahead," said Obama.
The evening before, Rooney was the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the American Ireland Fund, which he had helped found in 1976.
Noted for his reluctance to speak of his accomplishments, Rooney would only tell an Irish Echo reporter that he was a subscriber to the paper and enjoyed it. But he declined to say anything about himself.
His wife, Pat, was asked if he was always so humble about his accomplishments. "Yes, he really is humble about himself at home, too," she said.
Congressman Peter King (R-NY) in attendance at the White House for the Shamrock ceremony, said Rooney was a natural to be ambassador.
"He represents the best of Irish America," said King, who forecasted bipartisan approval for Rooney's nomination when it goes to the Senate for confirmation.
Brian Cowen, because of the continuing global financial crisis, struck a somber tone in Washington during his first visit as taoiseach, a visit during which he promoted Irish exports, announced a relaxation of rules governing the securing of Irish citizenship by U.S. citizens, advocated better U.S. visa access for Irish citizens, and unveiled the findings of a review into Irish/U.S. relations carried out by Ireland's ambassador to the U.S., Michael Collins.
At the American Ireland Fund dinner, Cowen repeated a favored theme: it's up to the United States to get the world's economic engines revving again.
"It is a time when the leadership of the United States is more crucial than ever," he said.
By Tuesday morning, things were distinctly less somber with global concerns on hold for at least a few hours. St. Patrick's Day a-la-Chicago was the order of the day for the public celebrations.
"Just one last point that I would like to make, and that is although I think it's wonderful that he visited the Oval Office and Washington, what you're really missing out on is the South Side Irish Parade in Chicago," Obama told Cowen at one point.
"I've been there," the taoiseach responded.
In addition to the green flowing fountains, the Shannon Rovers, the official pipe band of the Chicago St. Patrick's Day festival, were invited to perform in the evening gathering at the White House.
The band was joined by Maggie McCarthy, a traditional Irish dancer and musician from Cork and the band Celtic Thunder. Pulitzer Prize winning poet Paul Muldoon, who is from Belfast, read his poetry.
The scale of the St. Patrick's Day celebration, far greater than anything during the Bush years, perhaps reflected President Obama's background as a politician from Chicago, but he also noted the personal side in a meeting in the Oval Office with the taoiseach.
"I, personally, take great interest on St. Patrick's Day because, as some of you know, my mother's family can be traced back to Ireland. And it turns out that I think our first Irish ancestor came from the same county (as the taoiseach) So we may be cousins. We haven't sorted that through yet," said Obama.
Cowen took the opportunity to offer an official invitation for the president to visit Ireland.
"I hope so," said the president in response.
On Monday night, meanwhile, Congressman Joseph Crowley received a distinguished leadership award at the American Ireland Fund gala. Crowley was clearly overjoyed at the recognition and had a table full of family including Crowleys, Hoolihans, and cousin Karen Coyle of Bord Bia North America.
Before the ceremony, Crowley told the Echo that the award was a very personal one. He said it felt more like the family dinner table than the usual Washington dinner honor.
"I look at the people around this room who have done so much for peace and to think that I would be there with those of such stature is really overwhelming," said Crowley.
Previous winners of the AIF award include former British prime minister Tony Blair, Bono, and former president Bill Clinton.
Crowley paused during his acceptance speech to acknowledge the recent deaths of two British soldiers and a constable in Northern Ireland. He said he had a message for the republican dissidents who claim to
have killed the three.
"Irish America is watching, and Irish America is not proud of the events in the past few weeks," he said.
President Obama also commented on the three killings during his remarks.
"Every peace process is challenged by those who would seek to destroy it. And no one ever believed that this extraordinary endeavor would be any different. We knew that there would be setbacks; we knew that there would be false starts.
"We knew that the opponents of peace would trot out the same old tired violence of the past in hopes that this young agreement would be too fragile to hold."
He said the people of Ireland had acted heroically in not responding to the violence. He extolled the joint response by the North's ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness in condemning the murders.
"After seeing former adversaries mourning and praying and working together this week, I've never been more confident that peace will prevail," he added.
Both ministers were in Washington attending various ceremonies. They also met with national security advisor, General Jim Jones, at the White House.