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An unexpected guest and a luminous river: Leo ends St Patrick's trip not being centre of attention

Varadkar finished off the final leg of his US trip walking in the Chicago parade and taking a boat trip down the river.

Leo Varadkar gives a thumbs up on the Chicago river as he ends his week in the US.
Leo Varadkar gives a thumbs up on the Chicago river as he ends his week in the US.
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

Christina Finn reporting from Chicago

THE TAOISEACH IS used to being the centre of attention in the US during the St Patrick’s Day celebrations.

But he was somewhat overlooked yesterday when MMA fighter Conor McGregor arrived to march in the Chicago parade, which he led alongside the city’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel.

Photographers and camera people crowded around McGregor as he put on a sash which had his name on it, and clenched his fist, posing in his fighter stance. 

The Taoiseach, who was left on the sidelines, later clarified that he was not aware that McGregor was attending the parade, stating that the MMA fighter wasn’t representing Ireland in the parade, he was.

Some have dubbed it a PR gaffe, but the Irish-American contingent in Chicago are not happy one bit with how the parade played out.

It’s become somewhat of a tradition for the Taoiseach to attend parades in the US, though it is usually in New York. Marching in the Chicago parade was a departure from the usual.

Last year, chants of “Leo, Leo, Leo” could be heard, with Varadkar later telling the media he assumed those shouting his name were Irish people who were here on holiday.

“I doubt I am that well-known here in America,” he joked at the time.

There wasn’t so much of that this year, however, he has made a name for himself in the States this time around.

Leo Varadkar visit to US - Day 4 Irish mixed martial artist Conor McGregor joins the St Patrick's Day Parade in Chicago Source: Brian Lawless

Notably, headlines in the international press were dominated this week by the Taoiseach’s breakfast meeting with Vice President Mike Pence. 

Pence, who has been criticised for his views and his legislative record on LGBT rights, told Varadkar last year that his partner, Matt Barrett, would be welcome at his official residence at this year’s St Patrick’s breakfast. 

And speaking at the event – which was open to press, in a departure from last year – the Taoiseach gave remarks noting that in modern day Ireland politicians were judged not by their sexual orientation, “skin tone, gender or religious beliefs” but by their actions. 

Leo Varadkar visit to US - Day 4 Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Speaking in Chicago afterwards, Varadkar said that while he did not discuss his speech with Pence, they had a “good chat” about various issues.

“Obviously we have very different views on social policy but I think the best way to manage these things is to engage with people,” he added.

There’s no doubt he knew the significance of his speech before delivering it, but the Taoiseach might not have predicted the reaction. 

While the American people might not have known the name of Ireland’s ‘Tee-shuck’ (as Donald Trump pronounced it this week) they are more likely to know it now that US TV presenter Ellen Degeneres tweeted out a Buzzfeed article about the visit, stating: 

“Mike Pence met with Ireland’s openly gay PM and his boyfriend. This makes me very happy.”

But how does Matt feel about being thrusted into the limelight? We’re not sure, and either is the Taoiseach, telling the media yesterday that he hasn’t asked him.

Varadkar says he wasn’t nervous about delivering the speech, stating that he just wanted to convey “Ireland’s values” to the vice president.

The Taoiseach added that while his boyfriend doesn’t always like to be his “plus one” at official events, he was keen to accept the invite to breakfast at the Pences. 

Leo Varadkar visit to US - Day 2 Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Last year, the Taoiseach made the headlines back home for all the wrong reasons, when he went off script and joked at a Capitol Hill lunch about intervening on behalf of Donald Trump in order to stop a wind farm being built near Doonbeg.

Today, Varadkar strolled down the streets of Chicago, flanked by secret service officers,  and last year’s gaffes seemed a million miles.

Like the parade, where the attention was elsewhere other than the Taoiseach, a similar turn of events occurred at a packed-out dinner of over 1,000 Irish-American’s at the Irish Fellowship Club on Friday night. 

It was a rowdy event, with speakers, including the Taoiseach being drowned out by raucous crowd of Irish-Americans who were kicking of St Patrick’s Day a little early.

Silence only prevailed when the priest gave his blessing, with jokes heard after about how he was giving them all a special dispensation for lent. 

During a speech at the Irish Fellowship Club dinner on Friday evening, Varadkar reiterated what he has been saying about Irish immigration all week.

Leo Varadkar visit to US - Day 3 Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking at the Irish Fellowship Club Annual SPD Dinner at the Hilton Hotel in Chicago Source: PA Wire/PA Images

He said immigrants from all countries and religions have helped build the United States.

“But sometimes as well they were scapegoats and blamed for things that went wrong just because of where they came from and because of their religion,” he added.

“We saw an example of that in New Zealand.

“For us in Ireland we believe the time has come for us to play a greater role in the world 100 years after independence. We really want to share our culture and share our identity.”

Governor of Illinois J B Pritzker paid tribute to the Irish immigrants who travelled to US in the 1840s.

“We would do well to remember those who immigrated to this country during the Irish potato famine, those who faced their share of prejudice and discrimination but persevered, taking the jobs that were available to them and working hard to build a better life for themselves and for their families.

“There are Irish-American descendants who would go on to become our teachers, our nurses, our police officers, our firefighters and our presidents of the United States.

“They educate our young and care for our sick, contributing to our culture and character as a nation.”

Pritzker, who is a Democrat, pointed out that the Taoiseach is the son of an immigrant, adding that as long as he is governor, the State of Illinois will be a welcome place for all (a sly dig at Trump with that one).  

Leo Varadkar visit to US - Day 4 Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during the St Patrick's Day Parade in Chicago Source: PA Wire/PA Images

The final official engagement for the Taoiseach, after marching down the streets of Chicago, was a boat trip down the river, which, as is tradition, had been dyed a bright, bright green.

There was a harpist, Galway Girl was playing in the background, as Irish-Americans, the Irish ambassador to the US, Dan Mulhall, Minister Michael Ring and Senators Michael McDowell and Ian Marshall joined the Taoiseach on board. 

Giving his final St Patrick’s Day speech of the trip, he reminded people of how important the US trip is to the serving Taoiseach, stating that many a world leader has asked him how they get access to the likes of US President Donald Trump, and politicians on the Hill. Varadkar said the tradition has been nurtured over the years, because it is an important relationship to keep up.

So, how did Leo do on his second time around in the US as Taoiseach?

One Irish politician commended the Taoiseach, stating that he had “played a blinder” this year. Though the same politician stated that Varadkar had made a mess of it last year. 

“Leo is finally getting it. He is seeing the value and importance of these events. He is now understanding that the smiles and a bit of plámásing to the Irish-Americans is needed. Enda knew it, and he did it very well. Leo is starting to understand how it is done, and that was clear on this trip,” they said. 

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