By Ed Forry
The Irish were in charge at the White House on St. Patrick’s Day last month – or so it seemed.
Even as the fountain on the north lawn was filled with green dye, and the colors of the Emerald Isle adorned the East Room, several hundred Irish and Irish Americans gathered for a celebration with President and Mrs. Obama and the new Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his wife Fionnualana, and a truly festive night it was.
It is a long presidential tradition to receive for Irish government leaders at the White House on the Saint’s day, going back as least as far as the Bush, Clinton, and Reagan years. As is the custom, President Obama received a bowl of fresh living shamrocks from the Irish prime minister. The ceremonies, including brief speeches by Vice President Biden, Kenny, and the president lasted just about 25 minutes – but it was a true Irish party throughout the evening.
The night was filled with five-star Irish performances. Arriving guests were greeted by a choral performance by the National Chamber Choir of Ireland, some 20 singers who sang an original piece written by Riverdance composer Bill Whelan. Upstairs, the brilliant Academy Award-winning singer-songwriter Glen Hansard warmed up the crowd. The White House reverberated Irish music as Hansard had everyone singing a beery, raucous rendition of The Old Triangle (“… Went Jing-le Jan-gle, All aroooouuuund the baaaaaanks, of the Ro-yal Caa-nal.)
Then out stepped Vice President Joe Biden, an Irish American born in Scranton to an Irish American mother, and he soon had the gathering roaring with his good humor.
“You know, all of you Irishmen out there, they talk about the luck of the Irish,” Biden said. “My grandfather, Ambrose Finnegan, didn’t like that expression as much. He liked the expression, he used to say, if you’re lucky enough to be Irish, well, you’re lucky enough. And I think we’re all pretty lucky in here tonight – lucky to be here at the White House, lucky to be here about to hear the two people I’m about to introduce.
“We’re here to celebrate friendship between two great nations, Ireland and the United States, and two nations that define me the most, and I expect define most of you. There’s an old Irish proverb – there’s a million of them – but there’s [one] that says there is no strength without unity.And one of the things that has been the case for a long time is we celebrate in this house the unity derived from all of the Irish that have peopled this great country, 40 million of us claim it, and that beautiful Ireland.
“And actually, since the birth of America on – we have on March 17th, 1776, when the British forces under Sir William Howe evacuated Boston, literally there was a password to get to George Washington’s encampment, and it was ‘Saint Patrick.’ That was the password.
’ Well, ladies and gentlemen, that still works here in the White House. Just ask Bill Daley or Tom Donilon or McDonough or Brennan, the entire national security team – it’s still Saint Patrick. The president is surrounded by us.
“You know, my mom Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden used to say, ‘To be Irish is about family, it’s about faith, and it’s about courage. She said, without courage you can’t love with abandon.
"Well, ladies and gentlemen, that’s why she liked Barack Obama so much. I think he got used to her calling him ‘honey’ – but she thought that he embodied all those virtues. And I can tell you from experience of working with him side by side these last two years, he abounds in courage.
"There’s also another Irish expression that says a good friend is like a four-leaf clover -- hard to find and lucky to have. I consider myself extremely lucky to have two good friends in Michelle and Barack Obama. And after spending the morning with the Taoiseach and his wife, I hope I found two more friends."
REMARKS of the President and Taoiseach
Ireland’s new prime minister, Enda Kenny, met up with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden on March 17 at the White House reception in honor of St. Patrick’s Day where greetings were delivered with charm and eloquence as their wives and invited guests looked on.
In his welcome, Obama detailed the story of how Frederick Douglass escaped slave catchers in 1845 by fleeing across the Atlantic to Ireland. For his part, Kenny compared the slave trade between Africa and America to the flight from death and starvation of the Irish who came on the coffin ships. “Together we built America,” he said.
Excerpts from their addresses follow:
OBAMA: I am not going to stand up here very long because, as the old Irish saying goes, everyone is wise until he speaks. And I know we’ve got some entertainment to get to. But the Irish also tell us that what fills the eye fills the heart. And tonight, in this room filled with so many friends both old and new, I can’t imagine a better place to be than right here with the sons and daughters of Ireland – and those who wish they were.
I want to start by welcoming Taoiseach Kenny and his lovely wife, Fionnuala. Please give them a big round of applause. (Applause.) Now, poor Taoiseach, he’s only been in office for a little over a week. He’s already jetlagged. But I’m honored that he agreed to leave the unpacking for another day and fly across the ocean to be with us here tonight.
Every year at this time, we’re reminded of just how many strands of green are woven into our American story. And even though St. Patrick’s Day has perhaps been better known for revelry than reflection, it’s also a chance for us to remember how the journey to America began for so many of our ancestors – including, as I discovered as I was running for office, one of mine; how millions of Irish boarded dank and crowded ships with a promise to send for their families later, often with no friends, no money, and nothing but hope waiting for them on the other side.
Like so many immigrants who came to call this country home, these men and women were guided by a deep faith and an unwavering belief that here in America a better life is available for anybody who’s willing to try. And even though they weren’t always welcomed in their new land, they persevered. They built and led and defended our country while still holding fast to their heritage. And in many ways, what it means to be Irish helped to define to what it means to be American.
That’s why today when we think about a Tip O’Neill – whose daughter, by the way, is here tonight and his granddaughter, and it was wonderful to meet them – or a Ronald Reagan, we see an example of how it’s possible to argue over policy without sacrificing friendship; how it’s easy to disagree without being disagreeable, if you make the effort.
When we think about a Henry Ford or a Cyrus McCormick, we see the ingenuity that has driven generations of Americans to build the businesses and create the inventions that have helped makes a nation an engine of prosperity.
When we think about an Audie Murphy or a John King, two of the hundreds of Irish Americans who have won the Medal of Honor, we see the heroism and bravery that comes with risking your own life for your country.
When we think about a family like the Kennedys, we see a steadfast belief in the importance of service and the duty each of us has to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves.
In so many ways, the Irish and their descendants have set an example for us as a people. But they’ve also set an example for us as a nation struggling to be more just and more free.
In 1845, Frederick Douglass, the great fighter for freedom here in this country, had just published his Narrative of a Life of an American Slave. And even as the book was a bestseller, Douglass began receiving steady streams of threats to his life.
So he decided to embark on a two-year lecture tour of the British Isles until things cooled down. He began by spending four months in Ireland, far from the threat of slave catchers, where he quickly found common ground with the people locked in their struggle against oppression.
As Douglass wrote, “I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life since landing in this country. I seem to have undergone a transformation. I live a new life.”
It was at a Dublin rally that Douglass met the Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell. And soon, the two struck up an unlikely friendship. O’Connell was a fierce opponent of slavery, and he began calling Douglass “the black O’Connell of the United States.”
For his part, Douglass drew inspiration from the Irishman’s courage and intelligence, ultimately modeling his own struggle for justice on O’Connell’s belief that change could be achieved peacefully through rule of law. Daniel O’Connell never lived to see another great emancipator named Abraham Lincoln put pen to paper and bring slavery to an end. But the two men shared a universal desire for freedom – one that cannot be contained by language or culture or even the span of an ocean.
And stories like this remind us just how deeply intertwined our two nations are. Nights like this remind us how much we share.
And so as we celebrate together, let us take a moment to appreciate all that Ireland has given to America -- the faith we keep, the family we hold close, the laughter and song and warmth we feel when surrounded by the ones we love.
On behalf of the American people I want to thank the people of Ireland. In the years ahead, may our sons and daughters only grow closer.”
KENNY: Mr. President, thank you for your warm invitation to join you here this evening. Fionnuala and I are honored on behalf of the Irish people and delighted to accept your invitation.
On St. Patricks’s Day, sometimes we remember some of our leaders – Michael Davitt, who began one of the great agrarian movements throughout Europe; the great Ulster clans of the O’Neills and the O’Donnells; the O’Connells of Munster -- I’ve left a book on Daniel O’Connell for your protocol section, Mr. President. And dare I say it, the Obamas of Leinster.
Certainly if that’s the case, I can tell you that in the history of the English language, never has a single apostrophe meant so much to so many. And may I say, sir, Mr. President, they’re queuing up in the thousands to tell you that in Moneygall when you visit us in May of this year.
I’d like to echo the words of the President, because as we gather here in the White House this evening, we do remember the various ways and the different journeys that people took to get here. The Irish, driven out by what we called an Gorta Mór, or the Great Hunger, when the potato crop from the New World failed. As the writers said, in scattered lines they made for the quayside, their only sound the slow slap of their souls on the immigrant flagstones.
But, you see, ours was not a self-contained journey, because on another Atlantic coast other people were waiting – waiting to be herded into ships; mothers soothing children, perhaps not even their own; husbands calling for wives; wives calling for husbands.
Two peoples on the far coasts of one ocean, where in the words of Seamus Heaney, tireless waves came glinting, sifting from the Americas. And that was Africa’s Cape Coast, and Ireland’s Cape Clear.
Two peoples who would cross that single dividing ocean – the Irish to freedom; the Africans to slavery.
Though they didn’t know it, in time theirs were the genes that would build this great country of the United States of America. They actually are the genes that unite us this evening in the White House, designed by an Irish architect: to claim and to celebrate Saint Patrick, who came himself to redeem the soul of a people. And he was slave.
Mr. President, at Cape Coast Clear you said it seemed as if the walls were talking. They might well have said: respect, mercy, obligation – never again. Because I, too, believe in the intense, unyielding, but compassionate Patrick; that his life unites us here today not only in our Irish ancestry but also in our common heredity.
As President Kennedy said about his Family of Man two weeks before he passed away, “If our society is to promote the Family of Man, then let us realize the magnitude of our task.” And in the places around the world, nobody knows that more than the man standing behind me, the President of the United States.
Whether the Family of Man has to be promoted across the valleys of Kenya, or the mountains of Ireland, or the scattered islands of Indonesia, or in the wreckage of Japan with that country’s difficulties at the moment, or whether, Mr. President, we have to take it to places that are still forgotten around the world, this is our task.
This is the task of political leaders, because not only are we leaders but also fathers and parents teaching our children, our countries’ children, about duty and about obligation, the need to fight cruelty, the need to fight injustice and inhumanity, wherever it happens.
Our stories, indeed, might be singular but we do know that our destiny, our children’s destiny, is a shared prospect. Mr. President, we meet here in this historic building almost at the spring equinox, when new light returns to our lives. You will come to us in May, the start of what was known as the Celtic summer -- or as we call it in the Gaelic language, in the Irish language, Bealtaine, the feast of the bright fires. And when you do, sir, you will return to your own people, your own place. Mr. President, you will come, in a way, home to Ireland.
So tonight, let me paraphrase the words of one more famous than I: “Let the world go forth from this time and place. Let it go forth high and clear into the eves of this great city; that the bonds between Ireland and America as warm and as strong as they’ve ever been in the history of our two great countries – warm and strong and vigorous, and so they shall remain. Because we are united, inspired, sustained by our faith -- our faith, I might say, in the audacity of hope.
Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you. And God bless you and the people of America and the work you do for the oppressed and the disadvantaged around the world. And thank you on behalf of the people of Ireland.
My concluding words are these: I know now that miracles do happen. The fountain is green and I’ve arrived in the East Room here in the White House. One week in office: enough to build the world – that’s what the creator had. If we keep this up, Ireland will be great again inside a very short time.