By Ray O’Hanlon
Oddly enough, the title of "Shamrock Summit" does not apply to the meeting of the taoiseach and U.S. president in Washington, D.C., on, or close to, March 17. The term was coined during the 1980s to describe meetings between President Ronald Reagan and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. This week’s encounter between Bertie Ahern and George W. Bush over the Waterford Crystal bowl and its three-leafed inhabitant does, however, meet most of the criteria for a summit. The two leaders have serious issues to discuss and upon the outcome of the encounter may well rest the course of U.S. involvement in the peace process for months or even years to come.
So what appears on the surface to be little more than an exchange of pleasantries and the handing over of a botanical gift does have a serious purpose. Clearly, the sense of urgency behind the meeting can vary from year to year. This year, there would appear to be a need for a focused chat and the laying of a foundation for a good working relationship between Ahern and Bush.
Taking particular advantage of the annual flush of transAtlantic goodwill that comes with St. Patrick’s Day goes back decades, but it was with the advent of jet aircraft travel that the serious politicking began. Lest the Yanks be a bit reluctant to be seen getting too stuck into the Anglo-Irish conundrum, those early encounters could always be dressed up in a bit of harmless shamrockery.
Actually getting "fresh" shamrock to the U.S. for the big day became possible when Aer Lingus started flying Boeing 707s in 1958. The relatively easy air passage also got the politicians moving. Ireland’s president, Sean T. O’Kelly, raised St. Patrick’s Day to a new political level when he flew to Washington in 1959 with a few sprigs for President Eisenhower.
By 1963, with President Kennedy gearing up for his historic visit to Ireland, the presentation of shamrock had become a hardy annual. This from the Irish Echo’s March 23 issue of that year: "Thomas J. Kiernan, the Irish ambassador in Washington, had the honor of presenting President Kennedy with a gift of St. Patrick’s Day Shamrocks — with a joking reminder that the British burned the White house in 1814.
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"The ambassador presented the shamrock, an annual gift to the president, in a vase of Waterford Crystal bearing engravings of the White House and of its Irish architect, James Hoban.
"Mr. Kennedy laughed when Mr. Kiernan said that Hoban designed ‘the White House burned by the Anglo Saxons.’ The ambassador told Mr. Kennedy that the shamrocks had been flown in from ‘somewhere on the border of County Wexford,’ the home of the president’s own ancestors."
The Troubles in the North added an edge to the shamrock sessions between presidents and their Irish visitors, not always the taoiseach but sometimes the ambassador or foreign minister, and not always in the White House. In 1983, Foreign Minister Peter Barry came to Washington with a shamrock, but Ronald Reagan took possession of the bowl and its green contents in a ceremony at the Irish Embassy.
Said Barry to Reagan: "In Ireland, we send shamrock to our friends overseas and the wearing of shamrock expresses our hope for peace in the year ahead."
Reagan replied: "Like the seeds of the shamrock, Ireland has scattered its sons and daughters to the four winds, and everywhere they’ve taken root they’ve made a unique contribution to their adopted country."
The shamrock meetings during the ’90s began to adopt a pattern in which the taoiseach would invariably do the presenting. Indeed, at this juncture, the Irish prime minister is the only world leader who can lay claim to a fixed annual meeting with the U.S. president.
As readers are well aware, St. Patrick explained to the pagan Irish the mystery of the trinity with the shamrock — three leaves, one stem — but nobody has yet been tempted to breed a two-leaf hybrid — two jurisdictions, one country. But it’s fair to say that the division of Ireland has been a root cause of what is now an event that is an integral part of every St. Patrick’s Day in Washington.
That’s no less the case this year when the 43rd president will get his introduction to the art of shamrock diplomacy. The meeting is expected to take place in the White House Franklin Room. Ahern should remind Bush about the building’s architect, but given Bush’s Mayflowerish roots, he might do well to skip the bit about his ancestors torching the joint.
True Ellis experience
"IF" hears that the folks who made up the audience for the recent Three Irish Tenors concert on Ellis Island got a little bit more of the genuine immigrant experience than they had bargained for.
Boatloads of tenor fans made the icy crossing to the island only to find that the abundance of America was in somewhat short supply and, of course, the 6 p.m. departure time from Manhattan meant that not everybody had managed dinner. So by the time they set foot on the fabled isle they were as ready for a good nosh-up as their downtrodden ancestors. But one fan told "IF" that the subsequent five-and-half hours had to be bridged by small sandwiches containing humble helpings of tuna or egg salad and soda.
The show itself went on longer than many expected because it was being recorded for PBS. Anytime there was a flub, the three lads had to go over their lines again. It was with some relief that the now ravenous fans were allowed board the boats at 11:30 p.m. for the voyage back to America and all her bounty. Begob, but Annie Moore had an easier time of it.
If "IF" was a unionist one would either be roaring or rolling on the ground laughing at the cheek of the wee Republic’s government. The powers that be in Dublin have been all but digging up the bodies of past heroes and posting them on the border in an effort to hold back the tide of the foot-and-mouth plague.
Huge numbers of Irish soldiers and gardaí have been deployed in a "ring-of-steel" operation along the frontier. Her majesty’s security forces, however, have not responded in kind and have left the border on their side open to all manner of roaming smugglers, terrorists and rogue sheep. De Valera must be turning in his grave yet again.