by Joshua H. Liberatore
Occasioned by the visit of Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen to the White House on St. Patrick’s Day, POTUS drew on his own Irish roots in displaying his prodigious gift of gab in a variety of settings. Whether it is was the formal bilateral meeting in the Oval Office, the Shamrock presentation ceremony, the Congressional luncheon, or the two social receptions at the White House, POTUS christened each opportunity to highlight the Irish character with sincere praise, some flattery, a well-milked personal anecdote, and a few sprightly jokes. Any bard of the Emerald Isles, “down the generations” from Jonathan Swift to Oscar Wilde to James Joyce (POTUS himself quoted W.B. Yeats) to Seamus Heaney, would be proud to behold the royal treatment and sheer loquacity Éire received on a holiday most Americans associate with green sweaters, soda bread, and off-hours binge drinking.
I just want to say that we are incredibly honored to have the Taoiseach here and his entire team. This is an affirmation of one of the strongest bonds between peoples that exist in the world. You know, when you think about the history of Ireland and the enormous impact it has had on our own history, and the fact that you’ve had people from Ireland who have shed blood on behalf of this country’s independence and its freedom, that it has had probably as much impact on our culture and our traditions as any country on earth. (Oval Office, 10:56 a.m.)
It was a day chock-full of superlative congratulations, mutual affection, and even a little presidential genealogy, the latter of which got its share of airtime.
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 that Taoiseach once represented. So we may be cousins. [Laughter] We haven’t sorted that through yet. But even if by blood we’re not related, by culture and affinity, by friendship and mutual interest, we are certainly related. And this gives us an opportunity to just continue to strengthen the incredible bonds that we have between the two countries. (Oval Office, 10:58 a.m.)
Fulmouth Kearney, great-great-grandfather to POTUS’s mother Stanley Ann Dunham, worked as a cobbler in Moneygal, Offaly County. When Prime Minister Cowen registered this serendipitous connection to the very political district where he launched his political career in 1984, upon the death of his father (Chicagoans take note), he mourned the loss of a ready stock of campaign foot soldiers:
Can I say, Mr. President, you were saying you were trying to work out if we’re related or not. I just want to say that I have checked, and unfortunately, there are no Kearneys on the electoral register anymore in my electoral district. [Laughter] But if there were, I assure you, I’d have them on my campaign team. (Roosevelt Room, 11:45 a.m.)
Though it might not earn Cowen any new precinct captains for his 2012 reelection bid, this Fulmouth Kearney, ancient patriarch of POTUS’s Kansas forebears, became a kind of centerpiece for the day’s events.
Now, before I turn it over to Taoiseach, it turns out that we have something in common. He hails from County Offaly. And it was brought to my attention on the campaign that my great-great-great grandfather on my mother’s side came to America from a small village in this county as well. We are still speculating on whether we are related. (Roosevelt Room, 11:41 a.m.)
People help you discover a lot about yourself when you’re running for President. As has been mentioned, it was brought to my attention last year that my great-great-great grandfather on my mother’s side hailed from a small village in County Offaly. Now, when I was a relatively unknown candidate for office, I didn’t know about this part of my heritage, which would have been very helpful in Chicago. [Laughter] So I thought I was bluffing when I put the apostrophe after the O. [Laughter] I tried to explain that “Barack” was an ancient Celtic name. Taoiseach, I hope our efforts today put me on the path of earning that apostrophe. (U.S. Capitol, 1:34 p.m.)
Readers of Celtic ballads and epic poems, not too mention Joyce’s Ulysses, will recognize the cultural authority of POTUS’s literary technique. Irish storytelling, per force, involves a lot of strategic repetition. Rest assured that Fulmouth Kearney’s eyes would be smiling.
As it turns out, the Taoiseach and I have something in common – I’ve mentioned this in previous speeches – both he and my great-great-great grandfather on my mother’s side hail from County Offaly. (East Room, 7:36 p.m.)
I was mentioning in the other room, it turns out that the Taoiseach and I have something in common. Both he and my great-great-great grandfather – [laughter] – on my mother’s side hail from County Offaly. My great-great-great grandfather was a boot maker there, apparently, and I have been adopted there. I understand that I have been invited to a pub there – [laughter] – to enjoy a pint there. [Laughter] And so we’re going to take them up on that offer at some point. (State Dining Room, 7:58 p.m.)
It wasn’t all light repartee and warm nostalgia, however. POTUS and Cowen also aired their regrets concerning a recent flair-up of violence in Northern Ireland that left two soldiers and a policeman dead. POTUS linked the generations-old struggle for peace with a more universal hope for calm and prosperity, echoing Inaugural Address themes:
But 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. And 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. And the real question was this: When tested, how would the people of Northern Ireland respond? Now we know the answer: They’ve responded heroically. They and their leaders on both sides have condemned this violence and refrained from the old partisan impulses. They’ve shown they judge progress by what you build and not what you tear down. And they know that the future is too important to cede to those who are mired in the past. (Roosevelt Room, 11:48 a.m.)
After the Prime Minister presented POTUS with a bowl of Shamrock, as a symbol of renewed friendship and optimism, the ceremony concluded on a jolly note as POTUS introduced the venue for the next event on the packed agenda:
Now, today is a day for all the people of America and Ireland to celebrate our shared history and our shared future with joy and good cheer. So I can’t think of a better place to take the Taoiseach for lunch than the Congress. [Laughter] We’ll be heading there shortly for the annual Speaker’s St. Patrick’s Day luncheon, a tradition in which Democrats and Republicans put aside partisanship and unite around one debate only: who is more Irish than whom. (Roosevelt Room, 11:50 a.m.)
POTUS was so pleased with the joke that he couldn’t help but repeat it less than two hours later, a habit familiar to anyone with Irish uncles. Addressing Members of Congress, POTUS raised the stakes:
In fact, looking at all of you, I’m reminded of a greeting President Reagan once offered the guests at this gathering. “On St. Patrick’s Day,” he said, “you should spend time with saints and scholars. So I have two more stops to make.” [Laughter] But, it is wonderful to see so many wonderful Irish Americans, as well as so many who wish they were. (U.S. Capitol, 1:30 p.m.)
Amidst all the laughter and witticisms, though, POTUS made sure to recall an era when jokes about being Irish and competing for degrees of Irishness were not on the mainstream horizon. Having learned from Cowen a Gaelic expression (Is féidir linn) that translates roughly into his own campaign mantra ( “Yes, we can” ), POTUS rehearsed notable Irish contributions to American history and culture, for which he declared our collective gratitude:
Irish hands have signed our founding documents and fought in our wars. They’ve helped build our greatest cities. Through tragedy and triumph, despite bigotry and hostility, and against all odds, the Irish created a place for themselves in the American story. We are a nation blessed with so many immigrant and ethnic groups that have contributed to that story, and in doing so, they helped fashion a better life for all of us. (U.S. Capitol, 1:38 p.m.)
At times, indeed, POTUS almost seemed almost to yearn for a freer time in his daily schedule, when indulging in another Irish contribution to American life, the pleasures of the pint, was more feasible.
President Obama. Just one last point that I would like to make, and that is although I think it’s wonderful that you visited the Oval Office and Washington, what you’re really missing out on is the South Side Irish Parade in Chicago – [laughter] . . .
Prime Minister Cowen. I’ve been there.
President Obama. . . . which I believe is one of the great events in America. And it is a lot of fun. Although as President I don’t think I could have as much fun as I could before I was President at that parade, because I have press following me all the time. (Oval Office, 11:04 a.m.)
After spending the day together, POTUS and Prime Minster Cowen got so cozy that they nearly swapped speeches at the evening reception. Cowen welcomed “a strong friend of the United States” and went on for 20 seconds before reddening and rebooting. The luck of the Irish then passed to POTUS who, due to the last-minute toggling on the teleprompter screen, began: “First, I’d like to say thank you to President Obama!” The green hills of Ireland only beckoned all the more.
In the third year of his Presidency, John F. Kennedy decided to make a trip to his ancestral home. And one of his aides advised against it. The aide said, “You’ve already got all the Irish votes you want in this country.” [Laughter] “If you go to Ireland, people will say it’s just a pleasure trip.” And Kennedy responded, “That’s exactly what I want” – [laughter] – “a pleasure trip to Ireland.” That’s what I want too – [laughter] – but I’m not going to get one right now. We’ve got a little more work to do. (State Dining Room, 8:05 p.m.)
By the end of the day, after editing and indexing six sets of remarks, fact-checking historical references and literary allusions, verifying Gaelic transliterations, researching the Kennedy family tree, and straining our creativity to title each text distinctly, we too looked forward to enjoying a pint and even felt we deserved one.