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Washington DC

Irish dancing, stout and a poem by Bono: US St Patrick's Day carries on without 'unlucky Taoiseach'

Micheál Martin’s long-awaited trip to the White House was scuppered after he contracted Covid.

Political Correspondent Christina Finn reporting from the United States.  


That is how Micheál Martin was being described by many at the Ireland Funds gala dinner last night, where in dramatic fashion, he was whisked from the room (and away from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) having tested positive for Covid-19.

Just a few hours before, the Taoiseach was in flying form, basking in the 20 degree heat in Washington DC, where the famous cherry blossoms were in bloom as he headed into a fancy hotel just a stone’s throw from the White House to give Stripe brothers John and Patrick Collison prestigious medals as part of a Science Foundation of Ireland event.

One attendee noted afterwards that the Taoiseach was in “flying form”. 

“He really seems to be enjoying it,” she said, adding that she thought he deserved to enjoy the moment after missing out on St Patrick’s Day with the US president last year because of the pandemic. 

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Things got off to a bad start yesterday however, with news that US Vice President Kamala Harris’ husband Douglas Emhoff had tested positive for Covid-19.

That meant Martin would have to forfeit a traditional breakfast with the vice president at the Naval Observatory, which is generally made of up of kind remarks to the Taoiseach over food that harks back to the old country.

But the hiccup didn’t appear to phase the Taoiseach: he was due to meet US President Joe Biden the following day at the White House – that’s all that mattered.

He carried on, giving a press conference in the Sofitel Washington DC Lafayette Hotel to the travelling Irish journalists, after which he delivered a key address at the US Chamber of Commerce.

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In the late afternoon, anyone who was going to be within an arm’s length of the US president had to undergo Covid testing. This included everybody in the Irish delegation, including Irish journalists who were all tested by the White House medical team.

The delegation, suited and booted in their blacktie attire and ball gowns for the Ireland Funds gala, gathered in the DuPont Circle Hotel to be swabbed.

Some said it reminded them of waiting to do an exam.

After that first round of testing, a member of the Taoiseach’s delegation who had travelled to the US tested positive. The Taoiseach had tested negative via antigen, but was then given a PCR test “out of an abundance of caution”. 

In the meantime, Martin and his delegation had travelled to the National Monument Building, a colossal space that fit the 800 guests for the sold-out fundraiser — which raised more than $1 million for Irish charities.

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There was a buzz around the place with the usual green gúnas on display, the Irish dancers on the floor and Irish jig music setting the tone. 

It was a big night for Martin, as it was at the Irish Funds Gala dinner that he would get a chance to have a chinwag with Joe Biden prior to their meeting in the White House on St Patrick’s Day, something no previous Taoiseach has had an opportunity to do. 

Martin managed to get a few minutes – seven minutes in all, the US President would later confirm. Biden took to the stage and gave a speech about his Irish roots and the deep ties between the US and Ireland. 

Martin was due to receive the Ireland Funds 2022 International Leadership award, due to be presented to him after the president’s speech by US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

The Taoiseach and Pelosi were seated together for the time the Taoiseach was at the event.

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At a press conference at Capitol Hill today, she recalled the moment Martin was tapped on the shoulder and left the table, saying that even the Taoiseach did not know what it was all about.

But news of Martin’s positive result landed and he was quickly whisked away.

Ireland’s Ambassador in the US Dan Mulhall took to the stage to break the news.

“You may wonder why I’m here, well I’ll explain,” the Ambassador said.

“This evening, before we left to come here, all members of the delegation were tested for Covid-19 and the test on the Taoiseach was negative.

“But a member of the wider delegation tested positive and while that test was being checked and re-checked, out of an abundance of caution, the Taoiseach was tested just as he left to come here and sadly, that test turned out to be positive.”

The mood instantly changed in the room as whispers spread through the crowd. 

“The Taoiseach is in good form, it’s a sad thing that I have to do but I have to do this,” Mulhall added.

Everyone knew what the news meant: Martin’s hopes of making it to the White House this year were over. The shamrock ceremony and the Speakers’ lunch were off the table too. 

“He’s the unluckiest Taoiseach,” said one attendee later that evening, who pointed out that Martin had waited for years to become Taoiseach, only to have to deal with the Covid pandemic, which scuppered his in-person meeting with Biden last year. 

And because the Taoiseach role rotates back to Leo Varadkar in December, this was the last St Patrick’s Day where Martin would have the opportunity to visit the White House as Taoiseach in the lifetime of the current Dáil.

Last night, how the Oval Office meeting would take place was up in the air, but arrangements were made overnight to hold a virtual St Patrick’s Day meeting.

Almost a carbon copy of last year’s affair, the two leaders met via Zoom, with the Taoiseach joking that last year he was across the Atlantic but now he was across the road. “Getting closer,” he joked.

While Martin had to stay put, the St Patrick’s Day festivities carried on.

The Speakers’ lunch in Capitol Hill was attended by Biden and Pelosi, as well as Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald. 

There were pints of stout, shamrocks, Riverdance, Irish dancers, and even a poem by Bono – which was read out by Pelosi.

“Ireland’s sorrow and pain is now the Ukraine and Saint Patrick’s name now Zelenskyy,” the Speaker of the House read from the U2 frontman’s poem.

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Pelosi also praised the Taoiseach for his leadership during the pandemic, adding that he should also be commended for “reinvigorating” the Government’s focus on housing and healthcare, a comment that made McDonald’s head turn.

Wearing a deep ivy green tie and navy suit, Biden recalled his 45-minute Zoom meeting with the Taoiseach, who was said to be sorry he couldn’t attend the lunch.

“He is looking well, he feels well, he looks good,” Biden told the room.

The trip of a lifetime for Martin quickly turned to something of a nightmare. But despite his bad luck, the Taoiseach said this evening that he is in good spirits.

Speaking to the Irish media via Zoom call from Blair House, where he is isolating, he said he “feels good”.

“Of course, I’m disappointed personally, but it’s not the end of the world. And we have to keep things in perspective. I think that’s important, particularly in the context of what’s happening across the world today.”

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