Disciples of Hillary find faith in the new man

Thu, Jan 22, 2009, 00:00

IRISH INAUGURAL BALL:An alliance of Irish and African traditions was one idea promoted at the Irish-American event, writes DENIS STAUNTON.

MANY OF the leading figures in Irish-American politics crammed into the modest ballroom of Washington’s Phoenix Park Hotel on Tuesday night for the first ever Irish presidential inaugural ball.

The event, which was so heavily subscribed that it overflowed into the Georgian Room upstairs, was packed with former supporters of Hillary Clinton who had spent all of 2007 and much of last year criticising the new president.

You would never have guessed, however, from the encomiums and breathless expressions of excitement about Barack Obama.

As one observer remarked, it was as hard to find a Democrat admitting to past doubts about Obama as it was to meet anyone who confessed to voting for Richard Nixon in the landslide of 1972.

Irish Ambassador Michael Collins and EU Ambassador and former taoiseach John Bruton, who remained serenely above the political battle before the election, spoke of the impact Obama’s inauguration beyond America’s shores.

Bruton broke with the self-consciously Irish character event by stressing the influence the new president’s inauguration could have in Africa.

He recalled the energising effect of John F Kennedy’s election on the pessimistic Ireland of 1960, expressing the hope that Obama could inspire Africans as his forerunner had the Irish.

Congressman Richard Neal, chairman of the congressional Friends of Ireland, said the new president recognised the significance of the Good Friday agreement as the paramount US foreign policy achievement of recent years.

Neal stressed the importance for Ireland of an engaged Irish-American community, adding that US foreign policy is an expression of domestic policy.

As guests took their places for dinner, they were entertained by the Corrigans, performing There’s No-one as Irish as Barack Obama. The band was introduced by Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, prompting Irish-American Democrats president Stella O’Leary to declare that “if there’s no one as Irish as Barack Obama, there’s certainly no one as Irish as Martin O’Malley”.

O’Malley recalled the friendship between the 19th century African-American leader Frederick Douglass and Daniel O’Connell, remarking that, as a former mayor of Baltimore, he was aware of the extraordinary alchemy that could be achieved by an alliance of the Irish and the African traditions.

Urging guests to join heartily in the chorus of the Corrigans’ song, O’Malley suggested that those raised as Catholics “who are not used to singing with other people in the same room, should pretend to be Baptists” for the occasion.

Other guests at the event included former congressman Bruce Morrison, New York attorney Brian O’Dwyer, Financial Dynamics founder Declan Kelly, hotelier John Fitzpatrick and Irish Voicepublisher Niall O’Dowd. The American Ireland Fund was represented by Kingsley Aikins and Kiaran McLoughlin.

Among the most long-standing supporters of Obama at the event were Carol Wheeler, who led his campaign’s Irish outreach effort and her husband Tom, who served on the new president’s transition team.