Dancer Michael Flatley spoke proudly of a gruelling 20-year career in the spotlight as he was honoured by the American Ireland Fund in Washington on the eve of his retirement from professional performance.
Mr Flatley was the headline act to be honoured at the Irish-American philanthropic fund’s 24th annual St Patrick’s Day gala.
He joined fellow award recipients, two senior Republicans – the current Speaker of the US House of Representatives Paul Ryan and his predecessor John Boehner – and Virginia's Democratic senator Tim Kaine, who is tipped as Hillary Clinton's vice-presidential candidate.
The other honouree was Irish-American union leader Terry O’Sullivan who delivered a combative speech that contrasted starkly with the night’s other speeches as he called for “a free and united Ireland” at an event that is traditionally regarded as out of bounds for big political statements.
Irish ambassador Anne Anderson read a message from Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who could not attend the dinner as he usually does during his annual March visit to US owing to a European Council meeting.
Mr Kenny, via Ms Anderson, described Mr Flatley as “the most famous Irish dancer of all time and undoubtedly the greatest”.
An emotional Mr Flatley paid tribute to his parents saying that they worked “so hard, day and night” to support him and their family.
Looking back on his career from his breakthrough performance in Riverdance just over two decades years ago, Mr Flatley said that it had been a “brilliant 20 years” but that it was ending tomorrow.
He will hang up his dancing shoes after a St Patrick's Day performance of "The Lord of the Dance: Dangerous Games Tour" tonight at Caesars Palace casino and resort hotel in Las Vegas.
“It’s been tough. I like to think the good times have outweighed the bad times but sometimes I wonder,” he said.
He listed a litany of injuries to his body, from a torn calf to ruptured achilles tendons to broken bones.
“Other than that, it’s been great,” he said to laughs from the 850 guests that included 20 members of the US Congress.
“It’s been severe but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It’s been my great honour these last 20 years to do what I do. We have brought Irish culture to the four corners of the globe.”
Introducing Mr Boehner, Mr Ryan, who succeeded Mr Boehner as House Speaker in October, joked that he had known him since he first campaigned for him as a student when he couldn’t pronounce his name.
"I have know this man for 25 years but only in the last four months have I really come to appreciate who this man is," he said, in a reference to the task of trying to lead a divided Republican Party as Speaker.
Mr Boehner spoke about Mr Kenny’s lobbying for the undocumented Irish in the US at the annual St Patrick’s Day lunches in the US Capitol.
“Every year for five years, the Taoiseach would say: ‘John, John, John, how’s immigration reform going?’” Mr Boehner recalled Mr Kenny asking him, as he tried to mimic the Taoiseach’s accent.
The night took a sharply political tone when Mr O’Sullivan, general president of the Labourers’ International Union of North America, spoke.
Mr O'Sullivan recalled the contribution of the Irish in America to the Easter Rising on the centenary of the event after paying tribute to his fellow honourees and others in attendance at the dinner including Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Mary Lou McDonald.
“The greatest homage we can pay to all who have worked for, fought for and even died for the cause is to recommit ourselves not only to achieving a free and united Ireland but building a world of economic justice for all,” he said.
He urged people to “unite all of Ireland under one flag, under one nation and one government”.
The American Ireland Fund raised $1 million (€890 million) for Irish causes from tickets sold at the black-tie event.