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Bertie Ahern and George W Bush in the White House. Alamy Stock Photo
VOICES

Analysis What is the history of the White House shamrock presentation?

Dr Catherine Healy looks at the history of the shamrock ceremony every year at The White House.

ON 17 MARCH 1953, Ireland’s ambassador in Washington, John Hearne, was the first to present a bowl of shamrock to the US president for St Patrick’s Day.

According to his official schedule, Dwight Eisenhower spent 15 minutes with the Irish diplomat – a short but presumably pleasant break from the usual barrage of policy briefings.

Hearne had left shamrocks at the White House a year before, but the then president, Harry Truman, happened to be away at the time. Little could he have known the gesture would kickstart a now annual headline-grabbing fixture, guaranteeing generations of Irish leaders an audience at the Oval Office.

From the outset, the shamrock receptions were part of a wider strategy to cement political ties with America. Washington had criticised Irish neutrality during World War II, and our subsequent decision to remain outside NATO only strengthened the perception of Ireland as an isolated state.

president-ronald-reagan-says-a-few-words-during-a-st-patricks-day-luncheon-at-the-white-house-march-17-1982-in-honor-of-visiting-irish-prime-minister-charles-haughey-seated-center-as-sen-edwar President Ronald Reagan on St. Patrick's Day at the White House, March 17, 1982, with then Taoiseach Charles Haughey. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Taoiseach John Costello was keen to challenge that image when he visited the US in 1956, the first Irish head of government to mark St Patrick’s Day at the White House. With Ireland having just joined the UN, Costello’s trip focused attention both on our new international standing and our support for the western side in the Cold War.

Friends of Ireland

Speaker Tip O’Neill initiated the annual Friends of Ireland lunch on St Patrick’s Day in 1983, three decades on from Hearne’s inaugural presentation. The bipartisan gathering has become an important platform for Irish soft power, attended by the Taoiseach and US president, along with a plethora of political heavyweights.

It was here, in 1995, that Bill Clinton first publicly shook hands with Gerry Adams, a highly symbolic moment in the peace process.

Before Clinton, the White House had tended to treat St Patrick’s Day as a diplomatic nicety. Irish officials might have considered it a way to further their own policy objectives, but Washington’s reluctance to anger London always limited what could be said about partition and, later, about violence in Northern Ireland. John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan delighted in reminding voters of their Irish roots, yet both still trod a careful line on Ireland’s so-called internal affairs.

gerry-adams-leader-of-the-sinn-fein-party-that-is-allied-with-the-irish-republican-army-speaks-to-reporters-after-arriving-in-new-york-friday-march-13-1998-adams-is-in-new-york-friday-to-start-a Gerry Adams in the US for St Patrick's Day, 1998. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The tone of these annual gatherings shifted quite considerably once Clinton took office. St Patrick’s Day was, for Clinton, a chance to bring together all those involved in peace negotiations and provide a neutral venue for discussions. His decision to invite Adams to a White House reception on 17 March, 1995, was strongly condemned by Downing Street.

Summing up the prevailing mood in London, the Evening Standard quoted the son of an IRA bomb victim as saying America had “stabbed Britain in the back”. One recognised, however, that a peace settlement would require more open dialogue and engagement.

president-ronald-reagan-and-irish-prime-minister-garret-fitzgerald-share-a-laugh-in-the-rose-garden-at-the-white-house-in-washington-march-17-1984-on-the-eve-of-st-patricks-day-each-man-was-wear Reagan and Garret Fitzgerald in 1984. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The celebration for St Patrick’s Day in 1998 took place just weeks before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement when a breakthrough still seemed far away. Around 700 guests attended, including all of the major players in Northern Ireland politics. Clinton took it as an opportunity to cajole some of his more obstinate visitors, both at public events and in private meetings.

As one Irish official said at the time: “When you feel the hot breath of Bill Clinton over your shoulder, it’s a pretty powerful incentive to get on with it.”

In recent years, the ceremony has lost something of that political edge. It might be a nice trip for political correspondents, but the sight of green ties and shamrocks hardly generates much excitement back at home.

irelands-prime-minister-bertie-ahern-left-presents-a-bowl-of-shamrock-to-president-bush-during-a-saint-patricks-day-celebration-in-the-roosevelt-room-of-the-white-house-in-washington-thursday-ma Bertie Ahern and George W Bush in the White House. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Matthew Scully, a former speechwriter for George W Bush, made headlines when he admitted to feeling little enthusiasm about the annual chore of drafting St Patrick’s Day pleasantries. “How many different ways can you accept a bowl of shamrocks, or celebrate the sterling qualities of the noble Irish people?” he complained in an op-ed for The New York Times.

Making political points

This is not to say that political differences have always been kept at bay. In 2017, Enda Kenny used the occasion to issue a veiled criticism of Donald Trump’s immigration policies.

washington-usa-16th-mar-2017-united-states-president-donald-j-trump-holds-a-bilateral-meeting-with-the-taoiseach-of-ireland-enda-kenny-in-the-oval-office-of-the-white-house-on-march-16-2017-in-w Enda Kenny and Donald Trump Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Kenny, in his speech at the White House, reminded the gathered guests that St Patrick himself was an immigrant. “Ireland came to America because, deprived of liberty, opportunity, safety and even food itself, we believed,” he said. “Four decades before Lady Liberty lifted her lamp, we were the wretched refuse on the teeming shore. We believed in the shelter of America, in the compassion of America, in the opportunity of America. We came and became Americans.”

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, of course, has resisted calls to boycott this year’s reception in protest at the American response to Israel’s attacks on Gaza. He has said he will make clear how Irish people feel about the conflict but clearly is not prepared to give up the leverage provided by an annual meeting at the White House – something, he has stressed, that few other countries our size are guaranteed.

These days, St Patrick’s Day in Washington is not just a single ceremony but a week-long programme of political and economic engagements. John Hearne could scarcely have imagined what he was setting in motion when he turned up with that first bunch of shamrocks in 1952.

Dr Catherine Healy is historian-in-residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum.

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