Obama attends citizenship ceremony of Westmeath man

Michael Hennessy says political atmosphere in US means event is ‘bittersweet celebration’

Barack Obama at the US citizenship ceremony of Westmeath man Michael Hennessy. Photograph: US department of homeland security.

Barack Obama at the US citizenship ceremony of Westmeath man Michael Hennessy. Photograph: US department of homeland security.

 

For Michael Hennessy, the ceremony that made him a US citizen was “a bittersweet celebration.”

The Westmeath man formally became an American on Tuesday after 16 years living in the US, at an event attended by US president Barack Obama.

Hennessy’s response to the event was mixed, given that harsh anti-immigrant invective is currently dominating the 2016 US presidential race.

“There are a lot of people who have not had the same opportunities as me, particularly with the political atmosphere as it is,” he said.

Hennessy (42), the sales and marketing director at The Mayflower Hotel in Washington, was one of 31 immigrants from 25 countries sworn in at the National Archives in the US capital.

Hennessy said that he only found out 24 hours before the ceremony that Obama was attending.

The president spoke privately with the new US citizens before the ceremony.

They made their new pledge of allegiance in the room that houses the American Declaration of Independence, the US constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Hennessy is looking forward to receiving his new blue-covered passport, but says he will keep his Irish one: “I’m Irish at heart.”

The most important thing for this newly-made US citizen was being able to exercise his democratic rights.

“It is tough when you are stuck between two worlds and you don’t have a vote in either the US or Ireland, ” he said.

“I wanted to be able to make a difference, especially with upcoming presidential election.”

Obama’s speech

While Obama didn’t directly address Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and his proposal to deport all illegal immigrants during his speech at the ceremony, the president’s target was clear.

The president urged Americans to “resolve to never repeat mistakes” of past discrimination experienced by immigrants, including the Irish.

He spoke of Irish immigrants fleeing hunger more than a century ago facing barriers within the US, just as others are being rejected today.

“A century ago, New York City shops displayed those signs, ‘No Irish need apply,’” said Obama.

“Catholics were targeted, their loyalty questioned. So much so that, as recently as the 1950s and 1960s, when JFK had to run he had to convince people that his allegiance wasn’t primarily to the pope.”

He called for people to “speak out against hatred and bigotry” and to “stand up for the values enshrined by the documents in this room”.

“In the Mexican immigrant today, we see the Catholic immigrant of a century ago,” said the president.

Hennessy said he found Obama’s remarks “very moving”.

“It hit through on a lot of values that I believe in,” he said.

“It was definitely well worth 16 years of waiting.”