Ryle Dwyer looks back 30 years to Garret Fitzgerald’s St Patrick’s Day State visit to the White House, and its impact on the Northern peace process
When Irish ambassador John J Hearne sent a small box of shamrock to the White House for US president Harry Truman on St Patrick’s Day, 1952, he started a trend. Truman was out of town that day, so the ambassador could not deliver it personally.
President Seán T O’Kelly actually pinned a sprig of shamrock on Truman’s successor, Dwight Eisenhower, in 1959.
Ambassador Tommy Kiernan moved one step further with Eisenhower’s successor, John F Kennedy, in 1961. The ambassador presented him with a bowl of shamrock along with the Kennedy crest, emphasising the president’s Irish background. Thereafter presenting a bowl of shamrock became a traditional event, which some presidents have used to highlight their own Irish heritage.
With taoiseach Charles Haughey standing beside him, president Ronald Reagan stated that March 17 was the day on which St Patrick died in the year 461. “Leave it to the Irish to be carrying on a wake for 1,500 years,” he added.
During the Reagan presidency, St Patrick’s Day took on added significance. In addition to the presentation of the shamrock in a Waterford Crystal bowl, the Speaker’s Lunch was established, as well as an evening reception at the Irish ambassador’s residence. These occasions were used to announce important aspects of Irish involvement with the US, and American involvement in Ireland, especially in relation to the peace process.
“It’s always a delightful experience to observe St Patrick’s Day with a fellow Irishman,” Reagan wrote to Garret FitzGerald after the latter’s visit in 1986. The taoiseach provided an added twist in presenting the bowl of shamrock to Reagan. He also presented him with a Waterford crystal replica of the Statue of Liberty.
“I was truly honoured to accept the splendid Waterford crystal replica of the Statue as a gift from the people of Ireland to the people of the United States,” the president wrote.
“This remembrance will be displayed permanently in the Statue of Liberty Museum for all who visit there to enjoy.”
It was particularly timely, as that year was the centennial of the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour.
“I am grateful also for the magnificent Waterford crystal bowl filled with shamrock. The shamrock was used in an attempt to spread some traditional Irish luck; and the bowl will make a wonderful display in our future presidential collection.”
Waterford Glass seemed to enjoy an iconic status. Three decades on, surely we should be asking: “What really happened to Waterford Glass and who was responsible?”
Meanwhile, there was no shortage of blarney in the White House around St Patrick’s Day in 1986.
In thanking the taoiseach for the shamrock and Waterford Glass, Reagan sent his “warm best wishes to all my friend ‘back home’.”
It was the last St Patrick’s Day in active politics of the Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas ‘Tip’ O’Neill, who was about to retire from Congress. To mark the occasion, FitzGerald presented O’Neill and his wife with honourary Irish citizenship.
They became only the third and fourth people ever to be so honoured.
FitzGerald had a hectic five days schedule, addressing functions in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington, DC, as well as engaging in a whole series of high profiled television interviews — on the NBC Today Show, the CBS Morning News, the International News Hour on Cable Network News, along with a taped interview on the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour.
He spoke about economic relations between the two countries, and he called on Americans to help with the peace process.
In particular, he was anxious to cut off American funding for terrorism via Noraid, which had been funding the IRA’s campaign.
British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was highly impressed at the way the American funds for the IRA were curtailed.
“You have done a fantastic job there,” she told FitzGerald in The Hague during their summer summit meeting.
In the following months, there were reports of a split within Noraid between Michael Flannery, 83, the long-time head of Noraid, and Martin Galvin, 36, the organisation’s publicity director and editor of the Irish People newspaper.
Jim Flavin, the consul general in New York, reported that the split was over the decision of the Sinn Féin árd fheis to abandon its policy of abstention from the Dáil and Stormont. Abstention “has been an article of faith for Flannery and his supporters from the outset”, Flavin noted.
Flannery had broken with de Valera in 1926 over entering the Dáil, but Galvin had no intention going down a similar path 60 years later. He was determined to support Gerry Adams.
The consul dismissed the reports of the split as little more than media prattle, because the bottom line for both Flannery and Galvin was “to assist the campaign of violence in Northern Ireland”. Hence, Flavin suggested, it was “highly unlikely that the árd fheis decision will have any impact whatever on Noraid or its fund raising efforts in the US.”
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