US President Barack Obama has described an “incredible bond” between the US and Ireland at the annual St Patrick’s Day party at the White House.
Accompanied by his wife, Michelle, the visit is being touted as a means to boost morale in the 26 County State at a time when -- in the words of President Obama -- it is “bouncing back from the severe economic challenges that it’s experienced over the last several years”.
Despite a strong contingent of northerners at the White House shindig, it appears Obama has no plan to visit the Six Counties.
A reputed descendent of a shoemaker from County Offaly, Obama said he plans to visit some tourist sites, as well as travel to the home of his ancestors.
The St Patrick’s Day lunch was an unusually exuberant affair.
“There has been some controversy about my own background,” Obama joked, referring to the US ‘birther’ controversy over the constitutional birth requirement of US Presidents.
“Two years into my presidency, some are still bent on peddling rumours about my origins,” he said to laughter at a lunch in Capitol Hill before the inevitable exchange of the bowl of shamrock.
“So today I want to put all those rumours to rest. It is true my great-great-great-grandfather really was from Ireland. It’s true. Moneygall, to be precise. I can’t believe I have to keep pointing this out.”
Mr Obama also referred to anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass, an African-American who visited Ireland in 1845, at the beginning of the Great Hunger.
Sometimes described as ‘the black Daniel O’Connell’, Douglass “was shocked and appalled by the living conditions of the Irish peasantry and later likened them to conditions endured by slaves on American plantations”.
Mr Obama said Douglass and Catholic emancipator Daniel O’Connell “shared a universal desire for freedom; one that cannot be contained by language or culture or even the span of an ocean”.
“Stories like this remind us just how deeply intertwined our two nations are,” he said.
Kenny’s comments were also a mix of jocularity and sentimentality.
“On St Patrick’s Day, we remember our proud leaders: Michael Davitt from my own province of Connacht. The O’Neills and the O’Donnells of Ulster. O’Connell of Munster. O’Bama.. of Leinster,” he said.
“I can tell you, that in the history of the English language, never has asingle apostrophe meant so much to so many. Yes - there’s no one as Irish as Barack Obama. And Sir, they’re queuing in their thousands to tell you, in Moneygall when you visit us in May.”
He referred to the parallel between the Irish experience of famine and emigration under the English and the African-American experience of slavery and oppression.
“Two peoples. On the far coasts of one ocean.. theirs are the genes that will build America. The genes that unite us here”, he declared.
Although the announcement of the Obama visit as broadly expected, Enda Kenny said he did not know that the invitation would be accepted until the traditional St Patrick’s Day meeting in the Oval Office.
The North’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who was also present at the White House, said the US administration had been left “gobsmacked” by the refusal of British Prime Minister David Cameron to meet him.
Mr McGuinness said the president’s team were shocked by the deterioration in relations between the Six-County administration and London, which centres on the cost of maintaining the North’s public services.
Obama said he and Enda Kenny had held a conversation about how Ireland is “going to be bouncing back from the severe economic challenges that it’s experienced over the last several years”. The US leader also declared the Taoiseach “exudes confidence”.
More controversially,the US President thanked Mr Kenny “for the operations at Shannon [Airport] that are so vital for us moving our troops”.
Although Ireland is ostensibly a neutral country, an estimated two million US troops have passed through Shannon in the past decade, and warplanes have passed through en route to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama’s comments at the White House came before anti-war activists this weekend delivered two wheelbarrows of dossiers to Shannon gardai containing evidence of 20 illegal “rendition” [secret abduction] flights by CIA and US military through Shannon airport.
Some dressed in orange Guantanamo-style jumpsuits, members of Amnesty International, the Peace and Neutrality Alliance, Afri, the Irish Anti-War Movement and Shannonwatch were represented in presenting the evidence.
JACKSON IN IRISH VISIT
Separately, US civil rights activist Rev Jesse Jackson attended a number of civic engagements in Derry and Belfast on a visit to the North of Ireland this weekend.
His itinerary included a trip to the Pat Finucane Centre in Derry on Sunday and a meeting with conflict survivors from both communities at the Europa Hotel in Belfast on Saturday.
“I urge you, as you weep and as you vent, to know that your relatives are the winners and the shooters are the losers,” he told them. “In the end your relatives have honour and dignity, no shame and all blessings.”