Obama brings buzz back to Washington St Patrick's bash


It was an old-style St Patrick’s Day party, writes DENIS STAUNTONin Washington

THE WAITERS carrying trays of green champagne at the White House on Tuesday evening had to run a treacherous obstacle course as they dodged pipers, drummers and hundreds of guests crammed into the East Room and the State Room. It was a far cry from the stilted, mid-morning receptions favoured by the teetotal former president George Bush, even if it didn’t quite match the raucous sprawl of the parties of the Clinton years.

President Barack Obama initially hoped to make his St Patrick’s Day party a fairly intimate affair, small enough for him to greet everyone individually. The pressure for tickets from congressmen and senators, Democratic Party donors and the high and mighty in Ireland was so great, however, that the guest list grew to almost 400.

This meant that when Obama, vice-president Joe Biden and Taoiseach Brian Cowen finished making their remarks in the East Room, they walked across to the State Room to deliver the same speeches. Well, almost the same.

Standing before a teleprompter in the State Room, the president elaborated on his ancestral links to Co Offaly and his ambition to make a “pleasure trip” to Ireland.

“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 to enjoy a pint there. And so we’re going to take them up on that offer at some point,” he said.

“Just a side note, you know, Guinness tastes very different in Ireland. It is much better. You guys are keeping the good stuff for yourself. It could start a trade dispute.”

When Cowen rose to speak, he began by welcoming us to St Patrick’s Day at the White House – which seemed an odd thing to do given that it was not his house.

“We begin by welcoming today a strong friend of the United States,” he said. Then he stopped, looked first at the teleprompter and then at Obama. “This is your speech,” he said to roars of laughter and applause. “Who said these things were idiot-proof?”

When he regained his bearings, Cowen noted the work of Irish architect James Hoban on the White House. “We were always good in the construction business,” he said. “America does ambition well, ambition to succeed, ambition to build a better future. America does pride well, justifiable pride. America does change well, and does hope pretty well, as well. Ireland does connection well, the proof is here.”

When the Taoiseach was finished speaking, the president stepped up to the microphone and, copying his guest’s opening line difficulties, said: “First, I’d like to say thank you to President Obama . . . Happy St Patrick’s Day, everybody.”

Offaly was well represented at the party, as Irish guests included Seanad Cathaoirleach Pat Moylan and Enterprise Ireland chairman Hugh Cooney. Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin led a large delegation from his department, including secretary general David Cooney and head of the Anglo-Irish division, Pat Hennessy.

Fianna Fáil general secretary Seán Dorgan was there, along with Clare TD Timmy Dooley and party official David Harmon.

Guests from the North included First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, PSNI Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde, Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, the SDLP’s Mark Durkan and Margaret Ritchie and Alliance’s David Ford.

Washington’s political class was out in force, including secretary of state Hillary Clinton, senators Pat Leahy and Chris Dodd, Maryland governor Martin O’Malley (who had earlier sung the national anthem in Irish at the speaker’s lunch), former senator George Mitchell and Chicago mayor Richard Daley.

When the president gave a shout out to his home town of Chicago, a great cheer went up, reflecting the westerly shift of Irish-American power from New York to the Windy City. Among the Chicago guests were White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, special adviser Valerie Jarett and numerous Irish-Americans, including Les Coney, Seán Conroy, Mark Doyle and Dennis Gannon.

New York was well represented too – philanthropist Loretta Brennan Glucksman, city council speaker Christine Quinn, lawyer and Democratic activist Brian O’Dwyer and many others.

Michelle Obama wore a dark emerald green fitted tunic dress, which the women present agreed to be “just gorgeous”.

The food on offer had an emphatically Irish theme, with Irish smoked salmon served on a crispy potato cake, baked Limerick ham on a Carrigaline cheddar scone, with apple jelly and a selection of Irish cheese with soda bread.

More adventurous guests munched on corned beef and cabbage rolls, Dublin coddle and scallops wrapped in bacon.

As the party got into full swing, it became so loud that nobody could hear poet Paul Muldoon read his poem and New Jersey senator Frank Lautenberg had to call for order.

“Stay as long as you want,” Obama told his guests.

“Try to avoid putting any lampshades on your head because there are reporters watching and many of you are members of Congress.”