SURROUNDED by members of Congress at the lunch in honour of the Taoiseach on Capitol Hill, Barack Obama couldn’t resist.
“Looking at all of you, I’m reminded of the greeting President Reagan once offered 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.”
The room dissolved into laughter. Obama has had his run-ins with Congress, but yesterday was a day where peace broke out for 24 hours, and the US became a cheerleader for all things Irish.
The day had started at the White House, where the water in the fountains was especially dyed green. Obama and Brian Cowen met in the Oval Office, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Affairs Minister Micheál Martin also present.
The President and Taoiseach discussed the global economy, security issues, the illegal Irish in the US and other areas of common concern before it was on to the Roosevelt Room for the exchange of the customary shamrock bowl.
This ceremony had become stuffy in recent years as a result of US interest in Ireland fading. There had been much speculation, therefore, that Obama would do away with the event entirely.
The opposite was the case. The two have a lot in common. They’re both young leaders facing huge challenges and have problems with bankers. But Obama preferred to dwell on another bond they shared — their Offaly roots.
“We may be cousins. We haven’t sorted that through yet,” he said. “But even if by blood we’re not related, by culture and affinity, by friendship and mutual interest we are certainly related.”
Cowen, for his part, explained an Irish phrase which may come in useful if the President ever visits Ireland: “Is féidir linn.”
“It may seem familiar,” said Cowen with a smile. “It translates as ‘Yes we can’.”
But for all that it was a day of celebration, it could not pass without mention of the recent murders in the North. Cowen said a “tiny and evil minority” had challenged the North’s democratic institutions, but the people had responded by rejecting violence.
Obama echoed those comments, saying the people had responded “heroically”.
“And I want everyone listening to know this: the United States will always stand with those who work towards peace.”
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