The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
Remarks by the President, the Vice President and the Taoiseach of Ireland at St. Patrick's Day Reception
7:47 P.M. EDT
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Good evening, everyone. Mr. President, Mrs. Obama, the Taoiseach, Mrs. Cowen. Welcome to the White House and welcome, all of you, to the White House.
You know, as I said to some of my friends at the Vice President’s residence this morning at a breakfast, there’s an old saying -- there’s an old saying that goes like this: If you're lucky enough to be Irish, well, you’re lucky enough. (Laughter and applause.)
I was telling the Taoiseach earlier today, one of my favorite cartoons to explain to the Irish-Irish what we American-Irish are like was one handed to me, Mr. President, by Pat Moynihan about 15, 18 years ago. It was The New Yorker Magazine and it was a picture of Pat and Mike sitting in a pub in New York. And Pat looks at Mike and says, “Mike, don't you wish you were in a pub in Dublin wishing you were in a pub in New York?” (Laughter.) You understand that about us, you got it all straight, Taoiseach.
But the Taoiseach knows a lot about it. His mom lived in Long Island for 10 years or so -- God rest her soul and -- although, wait, your mom is still alive, it’s your dad passed. God bless her soul. (Laughter.) I got to get this straight.
You know, there are nearly 40 million of us who claim to be Irish-American. That's considerably larger than the entire population of the Emerald Isle. But 40 million, many of you in this room, have made incredible, incredible contributions to our country. Perhaps the greatest contribution collectively we Irish have made is that we have the same set of values both in Ireland and here: family, faith, pride and courage.
And these are the values, in my view -- and I mean this sincerely -- that define the man I work with every day, Barack Obama. (Applause.)
The President is always kidding me because I'm always quoting Irish poets. He thinks I quote them because I'm Irish. I don't do it for that reason -- I do it because they’re simply the best poets. And the best of them in my view is Yeats. Yeats once said, “In dreams begin responsibility.” Well, ladies and gentlemen, the dreams that President Obama has awakened and have awakened in the American people are generating a new sense of responsibility that I think is going to serve this nation well. It’s going to be a more peaceful world, a more prosperous nation, and, at the same time, an awful lot of people who haven’t had hope are going to get it.
There’s an old Irish proverb, as some of you know, that I heard my grandfather use but never really applied to me before. He said, it goes, “A silent mouth is sweet to hear.” (Laughter.) Well, I'm going to yield to that proverb -- (laughter) -- and introduce you to the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama. (Applause.)
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Good evening, everybody.
AUDIENCE: Good evening.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Welcome to St. Patrick’s Day at the White House, on a day when springtime is in the air –- and this is -- even though the Taoiseach hasn’t even shared his shamrocks yet, but we can feel spring coming.
Before I say anything else let me just say that I could not have a better partner in a difficult job than the Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden; he does a great job each and every day. (Applause.) And I couldn't have a better partner in life than the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. (Applause.)
Welcome back, Mr. Prime Minister, First Lady. We are thrilled to have you.
The Irish and Irish-Americans are out in force tonight. I believe, if I'm not mistaken that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy is here. (Applause.) A couple of my Cabinet Secretaries are here, as well –- Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. (Applause.) I would love to acknowledge all the members of Congress who are here tonight, but there are a few dozen of you, including three or four Murphys. (Laughter.) There’s one right there. (Laughter.) You're everywhere.
Governor Martin O’Malley -- (applause) -- who’s been known to be the lead in an Irish rock band. Governor Bob McDonnell is here, of the great Commonwealth of Virginia. And Mayor Tom Menino shipped down from Boston. (Applause.) My dear friend, the United States Ambassador to Ireland and the person who is singly responsible for converting the entire country to become Steelers’ fans, Dan Rooney. (Applause.) And his counterpart, the Irish Ambassador to the United States, Michael Collins. (Applause.) So welcome, everybody.
This has been a wonderful day filled with good reminders of just how deeply woven the ties between our two countries are. We welcomed back a friend, the Taoiseach. He and I remarked once again of our shared ties to County Offaly. (Applause.) He was born there, and when I was running for President, it was brought to my attention that -- I want to make sure I get this straight -- it was my great-great-great-great grandfather on my mother’s side who hailed from Moneygall. I wish I knew about this when I was running in Chicago. (Laughter.)
I also had the pleasure of welcoming back First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Northern Ireland -- (applause) -- two men who have stood together with conviction to chart a historic path towards peace. They are here tonight. We were thinking about sending them up to Congress tomorrow -- (laughter) -- to see if they can share some of their secrets. (Laughter.)
I also just met with Andrew Sens and Brigadier General -- I want to make sure I get this right -- Tauno Niemenen, who, because of their successful leadership, are winding down the work of the Independent Commission on Decommissioning after 12 years. (Applause.) And Matt Baggott, the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, whose fairness and impartiality is keeping the peace across all of Northern Ireland’s communities. So thank you. (Applause.)
Twelve years ago, America was inspired by the brave men and women who found the courage to see past the scars of a troubled past so that their children would know a better future. And we are watching you and continue to be inspired by your extraordinary work.
It’s wonderful to have everybody here at the White House here tonight. During his last visit, the Taoiseach mentioned that the Irish Diaspora is some 70 million strong -- which is obviously impressive for a small island. And it’s even more impressive that they all find their way to America for St. Patrick’s Day. (Laughter.) I can make that joke as somebody of Irish heritage. (Laughter.)
I should mention by the way that -- we were discussing this with my mayor from Chicago, Mayor Daley, and I told him that I had this Irish heritage. And he said that he had actually Kenyan blood in him also. (Laughter.)
It just goes to show that in recent decades it has become cool to be Irish. (Laughter.) It’s the phenomenon the Irish poet, and Joe Biden’s favorite poet, Seamus Heaney, once described in stunned fashion as “the manifestation of sheer, bloody genius -– Ireland is chic.” (Laughter.)
And obviously we know, though, that that wasn’t always the case. After centuries of oppression, the Irish began coming to America -– even before America had been won. Many came with no family, no friends, no money -– nothing to sustain their voyage but faith. Faith in the Almighty. Faith in a better life over the horizon. And faith that in America, you can make it if you try.
And in the wake of a Great Hunger, that migration intensified. And the Irish carved out a place for themselves in our nation’s story -– America and Ireland, our brawn and our blood, side by side in the making and remaking of this nation; pulling it westward, pushing it skyward, moving it forward -– even if it was a nation that was not always as welcoming as it could be.
But with hard work and toughness and loyalty and faith, the Irish persevered. And in the process they secured the future for generations of Irish-Americans free to live their lives as they will -– and today, free to argue openly and proudly about who is more Irish than whom. (Laughter.)
So it can be easy to forget that there was a time when “No Irish Need Apply.” Particularly when it was half a century ago this year that John F. Kennedy walked through the doors of this house as the first Irish Catholic President of the United States. (Applause.)
One person who never forgot this history -– someone who frequently recalled his grandfather’s vivid stories of those days; who through his office window could see the Boston Harbor steps where his eight Irish grandparents first set foot in America –- was the President’s youngest brother and our dear friend, Ted Kennedy. (Applause.)
He knew, as we do, that our nation is infinitely richer for not only the contributions of the Irish throughout history -– but the contributions of people from around the world. That’s why I’m pleased that there’s bipartisan progress being made in an area that I know was close to his big heart -– and that's fixing our broken immigration system. (Applause.) And that’s why my own commitment to comprehensive immigration reform remains unwavering.
In this and every other battle for progress, Ted was a tireless warrior. And I know that we could use him this week. I am so glad that we’re joined tonight by his wife Vicki; his daughter, Kara; his son, Congressman Patrick Kennedy; and his sister-in-law, Ethel Kennedy, as well as a whole bunch of nieces and nephews. Please give them a big round of applause. (Applause.)
Both of our nations are down one friend, a champion, and peacemaker. But it wouldn’t be Irish mourning without some undercurrent of joy. So while Teddy’s laughter may not shake the walls of this house tonight, as it did so many times over the past half-century, ours will not be diminished. While his singing may not fill these rooms, I suspect that won’t stop some of you from trying. (Laughter.) You don't have to try, though -- that's why we brought in the entertainment. (Laughter.)
This is rightly a day for celebration and good cheer between America and one of her oldest friends -– and it’s a partnership that extends to our earliest days as a Republic. So before I turn it over to the Taoiseach, let me leave you with all the words from those early days that speak to why this has been such an incredible relationship between our two countries. These are words spoken by the father of our country, George Washington:
“When our friendless standards were first unfurled, who were the strangers who first mustered around our staff? And when it reeled in the light, who more brilliantly sustained it than Erin’s generous sons? Ireland, thou friend of my country in my country’s most friendless days, much injured, much enduring land, accept this poor tribute from one who esteems thy worth, and mourns thy desolation. May the God of Heaven, in His justice and mercy, grant thee more prosperous fortunes, and in His own time, cause the sun of Freedom to shed its benign radiance on the Emerald Isle.”
To all of you from near and far, and over all the years and tests ahead, may America and Ireland forever brilliantly sustain one another’s sons and daughters.
And with that, to our guest, the Taoiseach of Ireland, on behalf of the American people we want to thank you for your presence here. We are proud to call you a friend this day and every day. And we are looking forward to planting this little piece of Ireland in the garden here in the White House.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everybody. (Applause.)
The Taoiseach, the Prime Minister of Ireland, Brian Cowen. (Applause.)
TAOISEACH COWEN: Thank you very much, President Obama. I made one solemn promise to myself when I've come to the White House for the second time: I intend reading my own speech tonight. (Laughter.)
Mr. President, First Lady Mrs. Obama, Mr. Vice President, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. I want to thank you, Mr. President and Mrs. Obama, for your warm and gracious welcome to the White House tonight for so many of us. Mary and I and all of our delegation are delighted to be here with you again this year.
We’ve had a great day of celebrations today at your nation’s Capitol, starting of course, with a very gracious invitation from the Vice President -- great Irishman, Joe Biden -- to a St. Patrick’s Day breakfast at is house. Himself and Jill gave us a wonderful start to a wonderful morning and we deeply appreciate that wonderful gesture. Thank you. (Applause.)
In fact, Mr. President, it’s almost as nice as your home here. (Laughter.) Joe Biden said he always voted for public housing -- he never thought he’d get into one as good. (Laughter.)
So I extend to you all our greetings for St. Patrick’s Day from the home sod. This occasion is an honor not only for those of us present this evening, but for all Irish people -- at home and across America. We feel very much at home here. And as we gather here tonight we remember that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the election of President Kennedy, in whose legacy we Irish take great pride.
On one occasion, speaking in your home city of Chicago, John F. Kennedy described Ireland’s Diaspora as a “fraternal empire.” He said that “whether we live in Cork or Boston, Chicago or Sydney, we are all members of a great family which is linked together by that strongest of chains -- a common past.”
The bonds between Ireland and America run deep in our shared history. St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in every state and corner of this great land. And it is so pleasing to us that this day has come to be appreciated and enjoyed by all Americans, not just those of Irish heritage.
The great blending of our people and our history has been shown in all its glory by those who are entertaining us tonight, including the City of Washington Pipe Band, the President's Marine Band, Irish Combo, and the magnificent Celtic Dreams from New York City. (Applause.)
Next year we will be having a special year of celebration of Irish arts and culture here in the United States, so I can assure you that we will have many more artists who will be ready and willing to return here at any time.
And I am delighted in that context that we are joined here tonight by that great Irish actor, Gabriel Byrne. Gabriel this week accepted an appointment as Ireland’s first Cultural Ambassador and I wish him well in that wonderful endeavor. (Applause.)
And of course, Mr. President, when the Irish are finished looking after your entertainment needs -- (laughter) -- Pádraig Harrington, who also joins us tonight can help you with your golf game. (Applause.)
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I need help. There he is. I need some tips.
TAOISEACH COWEN: Mr. President, this year on St. Patrick’s Day we are particularly mindful of the absence of our dear and loyal friend, Senator Ted Kennedy. Ted loved to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, and at times like this we miss his enthusiastic presence. He took great pride in his Irish heritage and he cared deeply about peace on our island. I know that he would be especially pleased to acknowledge the crucial and decisive step forward taken in recent weeks by First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, and all the leaders in Northern Ireland. We congratulate them on all that has been achieved and promise them our support. (Applause.)
In conclusion can I say that we hope to see you, the First Lady and your family in Ireland soon, Mr. President. (Applause.) It is important that we get visits from prestigious people of the American constituency from time to time. (Laughter.) I'm sure you have heard that the great welcome accorded to your predecessors is available to you as well. (Laughter.)
And we’ll never forget the historic visit by President Kennedy to his home place in 1963. And I can assure you of an equally warm welcome, especially in County Offaly, where I may have some influence. (Laughter.)
I also want to thank you very much, Mr. President, because we’re delighted and touched to know that not only will you plant shamrock in the children’s garden, but it will grow from soil from my own County of Offaly. Not only is the soil from Offaly, but it’s also from Moneygall -- the place of your own family’s Irish heritage. I believe, of course, that this soil will have special properties that will ensure that the garden flourishes. At least I hope so. (Laughter.)
And I know that when you trace your ancestry back to that place where I have lived all my life you’ll find a hearty welcome and many people waiting to see you there and to reconnect with your Irish heritage in a very real and personal way.
It’s amazing, you know, how many O’Haras, O’Sullivans and O’Neills are frantically searching to see if there’s any way they can be linked to the Obamas. (Laughter and applause.)
I want to say to you one search -- I am very closely acquainted with the electorate registered in County Offaly -- and there are no Obamas on it. (Laughter.)
However, Mr. President, it’s now my great honor to present you with a bowl of shamrock. I do so in celebration of the achievements of the Irish in America and of the everlasting friendship between the people of Ireland and the people of the United States of America. You will always have a loyal and faithful friend in me as long as I lead this government. (Applause.)
(The bowl of shamrock is presented.)
PRESIDENT OBAMA: This is wonderful. Beautiful. Thank you so much. And I think in addition to all the fertilizer we put down this will bring good luck to the garden. (Laughter.) Thank you very much, that is lovely. Thank you. (Applause.)
So I want to thank everybody for being here. I want you to have a wonderful time -- not that I need to tell you that. If anybody wants pictures taken, Patrick Leahy is here -- (laughter) -- he always has a camera. (Laughter.)
Have a wonderful time. Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everybody. (Applause.)
8:12 P.M. EDT