By Susan Falvella-Garraty
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Ireland’s president, Mary McAleese, last weekend officially opened the largest Irish arts festival ever held in the United States.
The two-week-long music, drama and poetry production at the John F. Kennedy Center was inaugurated with a black tie gala Saturday night.
President McAleese addressed a select group at a small dinner before the opening of "Island: Arts from Ireland" on the rooftop terrace of the concert hall that overlooks Washington’s monuments and the Potomac River. She chose to strike an upbeat note on the current political prospects for peace in her remarks.
"We gather at an auspicious time when the hopes of moving far beyond the politics of distrust and conflict into an uncharted era of consensus and partnership may at last be realized," she told the audience that included U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
The gala opening concert brought together an array of Irish cultural luminaries from both sides of the border. From lambeg drums to country music performer Ricky Skaggs and the ubiquitous "Riverdance" folks, the sold-out performance got feet tapping and hands clapping.
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During the course of the festival, Northern Ireland arts will be represented by Stewart Parker’s play "Pentecost," presented by Rough Magic. There will be recitations from poet and author, Seamus Heaney, Jennifer Johnston, Michael Longley, Davey Hammond and Tommy Makem. In addition to corporate sponsors, the Irish and British governments provided funding for the event.
Although there was a chance President Clinton would have met with President McAleese at the Kennedy Center, White House officials said his schedule did not allow for him to attend the opening. Nonetheless, Clinton appears to have Ireland on his mind again.
President McAleese said on Monday that though she was on a mission to the United States to help drum up enthusiasm for American economic investment in Ireland, her thoughts and concerns were with a peace process that stands on a precipice.
In meeting with a group of top company executives in the Washington, D.C., suburbs of Northern Virginia, Mrs. McAleese catalogued the journey of Ireland from economic backwater to the largest exporter of computer software in the world.
"You might not like to hear this," said the president, "but we have surpassed even the U.S. in software exports."
McAleese said that the world would be looking toward Northern Ireland to see whether the North Executive’s powers would be restored and a new era born.
"The process has been like space ships that dock with one another, and sometimes it can be wobbly," she said.
President McAleese, along with her husband and a long motorcade escorted by a dozen motorcycle outriders, a SWAT team and a van load of secret service agents, later stopped highway traffic during a 40-mile trek to Baltimore.
In Baltimore, McAleese met with the city’s recently elected mayor, Martin O’Malley. O’Malley bestowed honorary Baltimore citizenship upon the president and her husband, Dr. Martin McAleese.
The presidential motorcade, which grew to more than three city blocks at one point, made several stops in the city, including one at an Irish-American community reception at an art gallery.
The president addressed the Flax Trust dinner in Washington Monday evening during which she was presented with the Tenth Annual Flax Trust Award by Aida Alvarez, administrator of the Small Business Administration and winner of the award last year.
On Tuesday, McAleese was scheduled to meet with congressional leaders before taking a train for an official visit to Philadelphia, the final stop on her U.S. visit.