'Irish brigade' testament to US president's penchant for Paddys
THE PHOTOGRAPH of President Barack Obama and his national security staff watching the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound from the White House situation room will go down in history. With slight hyperbole, it’s already being called iconic.
If you study it carefully, you’ll discover that almost everyone in the picture is Irish-American or has a strong Irish connection.
“We work on the basis that the president is that little bit Irish himself,” says Ireland’s Ambassador to the US, Michael Collins. Vice-president Joe Biden’s mother was a Finnegan from Co Mayo.
Then there is Bill Daley, of the Daley dynasty that ruled Chicago for most of the past half century, now President Obama’s right-hand man as chief of staff. “We’re extremely proud of our heritage,” says Daley. “We’ve visited my father’s family from Dungarvan. My mother’s family is from Cork.”
When Obama telephoned Taoiseach Enda Kenny last March to congratulate him on his election, Kenny reiterated the standing Irish invitation, which Obama will finally take up on Monday. “I’m surrounded by all these Irish guys,” the president told Kenny. “I’m under huge pressure to go to Ireland.”
The Daleys and Bidens have been close for 25 years; the Daleys and Donilons even longer. Tom Donilon is the national security adviser. His brother Mike is on Joe Biden’s staff. The deputy national security adviser, Denis McDonagh, has four Irish-born grandparents.
Daley says Irishness is a bond between them: “We all enjoy laughter. We all enjoy telling stories to each other. We all enjoy each other’s company. You have a natural friend and relationship when someone is Irish or has Irish heritage.”
John Brennan, the president’s counter-terrorism adviser, still has family in Roscommon, where his father was born more than 90 years ago. He briefed US media after bin Laden’s death, along with the White House press secretary Jay Carney – another Irish-American. Samantha Power, Obama’s Cork-born adviser on human rights and an ardent advocate of intervention to prevent genocide, was one of those who worked hardest to persuade the president to take military action against Gadafy.
Daley, Donilon, Brennan and Carney – together with speech-writers Cody Keenan and Ben Rhodes, who studied Yeats and lived in Clontarf – are all part of what the ambassador calls “the travelling Irish brigade” that will accompany Obama to Ireland on Monday.
When Carney was a Timemagazine reporter in Moscow, he spent his holidays in Ireland. Megan Smolenyak, the genealogist who traced Obama’s Irish lineage, notes that Obama’s Kearney ancestors sometimes spelled their name Carney. So the president and his press secretary may be distant Irish cousins.
Bill Daley makes a joke of Obama’s penchant for hiring Irish-Americans. “People have noticed how smart President Obama is. I think it’s just the confirmation of his intelligence.” A framed sign saying “Help Wanted; Irish Need Not Apply” sits on Daley’s bookshelf in his office in the West Wing. “I’ve had that in every office I’ve had for more than 30 years. I had it in the commerce department (he was Bill Clinton’s secretary of commerce from 1997 until 2000). I’ve kept it to remind me of how far we all have come,” he explains.
It seems astonishing that the progeny of a small, neutral island in the North Atlantic should have reached such heights, often in bellicose roles. In 37 years as a diplomat, Collins has never seen a diaspora like this one.
“It is by definition the most powerful centre on earth,” he says. “To have people there with an Irish reflex, some Irish DNA, of course it’s hugely important. It’s an incredible testament to the character of Irish-American stock. Their sons and daughters have been able to rise to the very kernel of authority in this country.”
For Paul Quinn, an Irish-American attorney, Obama’s Irish entourage conjures up memories of the Kennedy White House, half a century ago. “They called themselves the Irish mafia. They were very proud of it – David Powers, Kenny O’Donnell, Larry O’Brien. They were all pals of the president, and they played important political roles.”
Quinn sees a continuity between Kennedy’s “mafia” and what has been called Obama’s “Murphia” – in their attitude towards politics and public service. Legislation was painstaking then too; it took the Kennedy administration 10 months to obtain federal funding for an education Bill, he recalls. The “Irish mafia” fought repeatedly to raise the minimum wage, and news was dominated by tension with Russia and questions about the US role in the world. “The fundamental issues haven’t changed very much,” says Quinn.
Daley laughs when I ask if he’s heard the Corrigan Brothers’ No one’s as Irish as Barack O’Bama. And yes, he detects Irish traits in the president.
“He has a sense of humour that I don’t think comes through often,” says Daley. “And he has a seriousness of purpose about helping people. That’s a very Irish trait in my opinion.”