News that President Barack Obama will go ahead with a major White House party this St. Patrick’s Day is very welcome. Bands are being booked and details are being finalized on a new era for the Irish at the White House. The clear indications are that Obama will turn back the clock and host a great Irish party that will remind everyone of the Clinton era. Under President Bill Clinton the party started around 6:30 p.m. and on a few occasions ran late, very late into the night. There was a very serious purpose to the celebrations also — to bring peace process leaders together in an environment about as far away from the mean streets of Belfast as could be imagined. It worked too, with many of the most spectacular breakthroughs being first hatched at the White House event. Individuals who rarely if ever set eyes on each other back home were forced into close proximity at the White House events. It was like watching icebergs slowly evaporate as party leaders from different tribes learned to stand in close proximity and eventually talk. Presiding over it all was Clinton, who made no secret of the fact that the St. Patrick’s party was one of his all-time favorite White House annual events. He stayed late as usual, sometimes being the last person to usher the last guests off the premises. Along with the camaraderie, however, he also got serious work done. Clinton operated on several levels at once, meeting and greeting, but also advising, cajoling and putting his own unique stamp on what became the Irish peace process. The guest list for the first event was drawn heavily from our sister publication Irish America magazine and its annual Top 100 Irish Americans list. Thus you were sure to find yourself in some fascinating company. The events also did wonders for Irish Americans. I will never forget the first Clinton party in 1993 when two of the great legends of Irish America, former City Council President Paul O’Dwyer and Eoin McKiernan, founder of the Irish American Cultural Institute, were first in line to meet the president. O’Dwyer confessed that he had only spent time outside the White House before that protesting successive presidents’ policies on Northern Ireland and many other civil rights issues. It was a magnificent moment to see him and McKiernan, a true pioneer in building Irish/U.S. links, there. When President George W. Bush came in the event was switched to a lunchtime reception, with no alcohol. It became about as much fun as a pub with no beer on St. Patrick’s Day. Bush was always well disposed to the Irish, but the St. Patrick’s celebrations were definitely muted. Clearly his own self-image as a recovering alcoholic who had given up a fast and furious life style was reflected, not just in the St .Patrick’s day event but also in the far fewer number of parties at the White House generally. A few weeks ago the fear was that Obama would continue the Bush type event, another party with everyone out of the White House by 2 p.m. and not a drink in sight. Bush also invited far fewer people than Clinton did. The Obama people finally made up their mind last week that they were going ahead – and that they would do it in style. That’s great news for Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen and the other Irish dignitaries who now seem certain to get far more face time with the president than they might have expected a few weeks ago. Given the economic situation in Ireland, that is good news. But it’s also great for all Obama’s Irish supporters in America, many of whom will now be invited to the hooley. Memories of the Clinton era will come back for many. Back then at the height of the peace process every year was a celebration of what had been achieved in Northern Ireland, along with lots of anxieties that peace would never come. I can remember when the IRA let off small explosions at Heathrow Airport shortly before one White House celebration, which meant we all had a pretty lousy night worrying about what would happen next. Then there was the amazing year when John Hume, Gerry Adams and Clinton, as well as some Loyalist leaders, all joined in a rendition of “Danny Boy,” which brought the house down. It was as sure a sign as any that peace was on the way. Visiting the White House is an experience that never grows old. I still get goose bumps remembering my first visit to the most famous house in the world. Once you get past the security you are so overwhelmed by the history of the place that it is hard to focus on anything else. Doubtless, there will be many from Ireland and Irish America who will experience the thrill for the first time. The Irish are back under Obama, and we can all look forward to a great St. Patrick’s Day.
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