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Taoiseach hits home run in DC visit

By Susan Falvella Garraty


Washington, D.C. --- President Barack Obama has confirmed what so many hoped for. He's going to visit Ireland.

"I intend to come to Ireland in May, and I'm expecting to go not only to all the famous sites, but also to go to Moneygall, where my great-great-great-great-great grandfather hails from," said the president with Taoiseach Enda Kenny seated at his side in the White House last Thursday, St. Patrick's Day.

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All the day, Obama smiled broadly and beamed at the various assemblies of Irish and Irish Americans gathered in celebration. Indeed, he dedicated almost the entire day to the Irish, with the exception being a quiet visit to the Japanese embassy in the afternoon to sign a book of condolences following that country's natural and nuclear disasters.

Expectations for Taoiseach Enda Kenny, only a week after being elected, were limited, but the Fine Gael leader hit it out of the park in his appearances and speeches over two and a half days in Washington.

He and his wife, Fionnuala Kenny, seemed at ease as they breakfasted with Vice President Joseph Biden and various media luminaries at the vice president's home, attended the St. Patrick's eve American Ireland Fund's black tie dinner, and were guests of honor of the president at the evening reception in the East Room of the White House.

Invoking the words and imagery of a previous Irish-American president, John F. Kennedy, Taoiseach Enda Kenny turned to President Obama and said, "You will come to us in May, the start of what was known as the Celtic summer -- or as we call it in the Gaelic language, in the Irish language, Bealtaine, the feast of the bright fires. And when you do, sir, you will return to your own people, your own place. Mr. President, you will come, in a way, home to Ireland."

And it won't be just President Obama who will be an American landing in Ireland in Bealtaine. Former President Bill Clinton will also make one of his frequent stops in Dublin. Taoiseach Kenny also said he looked forward to hosting Vice President Biden for a game of golf after President Obama's visit.

A chilly St. Patrick's morning had yielded to the first whisper of spring warmth in the afternoon, and Kenny's continual pronouncements that Ireland's wounded economy was "open for business" seemed buoyed by the sunshine.

He defended his country's lower corporate tax rate and told U.S. Treasury Timothy Geithner, members of Congress, and business leaders that he would not trade it as he continues to pursue renegotiation of the terms of the EU/IMF aid package the previous Irish government had accepted.

While in Washington, Kenny also met with members of the Abbey and Druid theater companies, the National Chamber Choir of Ireland and Solas Nua, this as part of the current Imagine Ireland program of cultural activities around the U.S.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was working overtime in the Middle East on the 17th, but caught up with the new Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore the next day.

The Labour leader and now also foreign minister said he had made progress with Secretary Clinton on some bilateral visa assistance for Irish workers looking to come to the U.S.

Gilmore also mentioned that the Irish Government was still pursuing restoration of funding for the International Fund for Ireland. Northern Ireland first and deputy first ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness also met with Clinton.

Besides policy and politics there was also time for a bit of craic. Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, was honored at the American Ireland Fund dinner along with Congressman Tim Murphy, A Republican.

O'Malley and attendee Congressman Joseph Crowley (D-NY) whipped out guitars at the end of the evening offering a bit of modern Irish rock and classic Bruce Springsteen.

The taoiseach's wife, Fionnuala, a former Fine Gael press officer, showed poise and presence the entire course of events, warmly speaking with First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Biden.

U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, Dan Rooney, rallied to make it to the White House's evening reception after missing the Vice President's breakfast because he felt unwell. Rooney's possible successor down the road, Washington attorney Mark Tuohey, was, meanwhile, at the pre-St. Patrick's Day luncheon at the British ambassador, Nigel Sheinwald's, residence.

Perhaps showing off his newly recognized personal Irish zeitgeist, the "craic" of the day did belong to the president.

Delivered off camera, the president offered some remarks to those hosted by Speaker John Boehner at the Speaker's luncheon.

In a dig at some in the Tea Party movement who question the president's birthplace, Obama, said to peels of laughter, "Two years into my presidency, some are still bent on peddling rumors about my origins, so today I want to put all those rumors 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."