At least 15 U.S. Presidents (including Barack Obama, pictured here with Irish PM Brian Cowen on St. Patrick's Day) have confirmed Irish ancestryThe White House

President Obama will host 600 Irish and Irish American leaders at the White House on St. Patrick's night in the biggest Irish celebration of St. Patrick's Day in the White House since the end of Clinton era, with twice the attendance from last year.

Among the attendees will be over 100 political and business leaders from Northern Ireland, including the party leaders there, as Obama once again emphasizes the importance of the Irish peace process. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, will be missing, as she is on a trip to Russia, but she will be stopping over in Shannon on St. Patrick's Day itself.

The president will host Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen during the four hour Irish party and will also deliver an address to the Irish American leader present.

Also attending the party will be major Irish figures, including pro golf star Padraig Harrington and actor Gabriel Byrne.

The Irish government announced on Tuesday that Byrne will be the first ever cultural ambassador for Ireland tasked with creating new opportunities for Irish culture abroad and spearheading an ambitious 2011 “invasion” of Irish culture to America.

The program in 2011 will include clusters of events in a range of key cities including New York, Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, among others. The program will run through 2011, with major festivals, venues and cultural organizations as presenting partners.

Cowen stated, “Gabriel Byrne is an internationally renowned, award-winning actor and is already well established as one of Ireland’s great ambassadors through his work in film and theatre, as well as his endeavors behind the scenes in supporting and promoting Irish artists.

“The appointment recognizes the worldwide importance of Ireland's culture and its profound connection to our economy, one of the major conclusions of the Global Irish Economic Forum at Farmleigh. The cultural ambassador will work closely with the Irish government, Culture Ireland and artistic bodies to develop an artistic vision that is inclusive of the Irish Diaspora throughout the world.”

Cowen added that Byrne has played a key role in developing the concept for this season, and as cultural ambassador he will be advising Culture Ireland and Ireland’s embassy and consulates in the U.S. in creating a dynamic program of art, ideas, debate and reflection which helps to foster a renewed, forward-looking cultural relationship between Ireland and America.

Meanwhile, Cowen has undertaken a packed schedule of events in the U.S. this week in an effort to promote tourism, trade and investment with a strong focus on job creation for Ireland.

“As a small nation, Ireland will, more than ever, have to look beyond its shores to forge strategic relationships with others, for our mutual benefit and the prosperity of our citizens,” Cowen told a group of businessmen in California on Monday.

Last weekend, Cowen attended the Chicago St. Patrick’s Day parade and met with Mayor Richard Daley and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn.

Cowen was in Silicon Valley on Monday promoting Ireland as an enterprise and investment location.

In an effort to persuade new investment into Ireland, he attended a private breakfast with a group of industrialists from the west coast who have operations in Ireland.  He then met Irish companies with businesses in the U.S.

He later addressed a business lunch organized by Enterprise Ireland about the economic situation in Ireland.

“Despite the severity of the recession, key strengths of the past two decades remain,” said Cowen.

 “Economic activity as measured by gross domestic product will be almost one-third higher in 2010 than in the year 2000, and around two and a half times what it was in 1990. Numbers in employment this year will still be around 1.8 million, compared with 1.7 million in 2000 and 1.2 million in 1990.”

On Tuesday night, Cowen was the keynote speaker at the American Ireland Fund dinner in Washington, D.C.  He spoke about the developments in Northern Ireland.

Cowen also met with Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who was the guest of honor at the American Ireland Fund event.

Cowen met with members of the newly established Global Irish Network and the Ireland America Economic Advisory Board.  Also on Tuesday, he launched a new education initiative to encourage study in Ireland.

The Ireland Homecoming Study Program (IHSP) aims to encourage the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Irish nationals, and non-resident passport holders living outside the European Union to return to Ireland for their higher education studies.

Eight institutes of Technology in Athlone, Blanchardstown, Carlow, Cork, Dundalk, Galway/Mayo, Sligo, and Waterford will take part in a pilot program this year, supported by Enterprise Ireland, to attract descendants of the Irish diaspora to study in Ireland at significantly discounted rates.

On St. Patrick’s Day Cowen and his Irish delegation, which includes Foreign Minister Micheal Martin, will meet with President Barack Obama at the traditional St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

Cowen will present a bowl of shamrock to Obama at the White House and attend the speaker’s lunch on Capitol Hill.

“I’m looking forward to meeting with him again (Obama), he’s a very personable, gifted politician,” Cowen said.

On the possibility of Obama visiting Ireland, Cowen said, “Well he knows there’s an open invitation there for him, I don’t think it’s necessary to continually refer to that. He’s aware obviously of his Irish heritage and whilst it’s some way back in his family history, he is conscious of it and he’s aware of it and asks about it.”

“We’d love to see him come but that’s a matter for himself because he has a lot of things on his plate at the moment,” added Cowen.