Enda Kenny sells recovery on first day of US visit

Taoiseach works to strengthen Irish bonds with US southeast on trip to Atlanta

Taoiseach Enda Kenny attended a ceremony commemorating Fr Thomas O'Reilly, the Cavan priest who saved Atlanta's churches and city hall from being burned to the ground by Gen William Sherman in the American Civil War 151 years ago.

The priest was honoured by mayor Kasim Reed with the Phoenix Award, the city's highest award, for saving the city.

Speaking next to the Taoiseach in Atlanta on the first day of his six-day St Patrick's Day visit to the US, Reed traced the strong relationship between Atlanta and Ireland back to O'Reilly.

Young Atlantan Jack Caffrey, whose grandparents came from Co Clare, was a shining example of those strong connections.

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Introducing himself to the Taoiseach, the confident 11-year-old told him how he, Mr Kenny, was one of his political heroes.

"I have always had a favourite in politics and things, and so I always looked to important people like Winston Churchill and the Irish prime minister," he said.

The Taoiseach seemed unsure of how to take the compliments.

Anti-austerity anger

This kind of positivity is a feature of Government visits to the US, where the Taoiseach and his Ministers are praised for their efforts to repair the economy - in contrast to the anti-austerity anger encountered at home.

Speaking at a breakfast hosted by the Irish Chamber of Commerce of Atlanta, Mr Kenny sold the recovery story to a group of business people from the city's biggest businesses: UPS, Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola and Oldcastle, the US subsidiary of cement group CRH.

Ireland had endured a “torrid time” over recent years, he told the audience, and “thanks to the sacrifices made by hundreds of thousand of the Irish people” an economic recovery has “now taken hold”.

Mr Kenny paid tribute to Irish-American businessman Don Keough, the former veteran executive of Atlanta-based Coca-Cola and economic adviser to the Government who died recently, describing his advice as "always a source of great assurance and of great strengths".

Irial Finan

The Taoiseach dropped by Coke's offices afterwards to meet chief executive Muhtar Kent and Irishman Irial Finan, the executive vice-president who oversees some of the company's Irish operations where, in Drogheda, Athy, Wexford and Ballina, it employs 800 people.

Last stop on the Taoiseach’s whistlestop first day in the US was a backstage and then on-stage meeting with Irish musician Hozier, on tour at the Tabernacle music venue.

Asked by the press pack in front of the singer what his favourite Hozier song was, Taoiseach said, without missing a beat, Take Me To Church.

Thanks to Fr O’Reilly, there are still churches in Atlanta to be taken to, along with plenty of strong ties to Ireland.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent