Talk about great timing.
My family and I – daughter Alana and husband Niall O’Dowd, publisher of the Irish Voice -- spent the week after Christmas enjoying some sun and downtime in south Florida. Before we left New York we had arranged to spend last Friday with the philanthropists Brian and Eileen Burns at their Palm Beach home to view their rare Irish art collection, and then, thanks to their invitation, at Mar-a-Lago, the resort owned by President-elect Donald Trump where the Burnses are members and regularly spend time with the Trumps; Donald has been a close friend for many years.
Late Thursday night, New York Times writer Maggie Haberman, who covered Trump extensively during the election campaign, tweeted that Trump told her that he would name Brian Burns as his ambassador to Ireland. Our sister website IrishCentral exclusively reported earlier last month that Burns was a top contender for the post, and Haberman’s tweet pretty much made it official.
Christmas came and went on December 25, but for Brian and Eileen Burns, there could be no greater gift than representing their country in the land they love so well and know inside out.
There has been lots said and written about Donald Trump since his career change from real estate mogul/reality TV star to politician. The Irish Voice was pro-Hillary Clinton with no regrets, but now it’s time to give the president-elect credit where credit is due: he couldn’t have made a better choice for U.S. ambassador to Ireland than Brian Burns.
It took President Obama years to replace his first Irish ambassador, Dan Rooney, and filling the all-important post never seemed to be a priority on his radar. Trump has certainly signaled the opposite by tapping his Irish American friend Burns before he’s even been inaugurated.
When we arrived at the Burns’ home with our friend, colleague and close Burns advisor Turlough McConnell, the mood was one of joy and excitement at what lies ahead for the family – Brian and Eileen have eight children between them and 15 grandchildren.
Haberman’s tweet prompted as stream of congratulatory phone calls and emails to the couple, but many of them would have to wait. Brian, 80, the grandson of an immigrant from Sneem, Co. Kerry, was eager to showcase his remarkable collection of Irish paintings and sculpture, with rare works from artists as diverse as Jack Butler Yeats, Noel Murphy and Rowan Gillespie. The Burnses have amassed the most substantial collection of Irish art in the U.S., and Brian can speak authoritatively on each and every piece that he’s proudly collected for decades.
His father, John J. Burns, was a lawyer and close advisor to Kennedy family patriarch Joe Kennedy. Brian, also a lawyer and Harvard Law graduate, created and endowed the John J. Burns Library at Boston College in his father’s honor; it contains the largest collection of rare Irish books and manuscripts in the Western Hemisphere.
After we finished viewing the art which occupies virtually every inch of their wall space, we drove to nearby Mar-a-Lago for lunch. Brian and Eileen met Trump there a few days before Christmas and have been members for many years.
Mar-a-Lago is elegant and gorgeous, much larger but in many ways similar to his Irish resort, Trump International Doonbeg in Co. Clare which I visited last summer. The security presence is intense; sniffer dogs and Secret Service and police checking and double-checking cars and visitors.
Over lunch on the expansive patio under a cloudless sky – the menu had everything from burgers to fish to “Barron’s macaroni and cheese,” a homage to Trump’s 10-year-old son – we talked about the Trumps and the Kennedys and current affairs as they relate to Ireland, particularly the undocumented Irish and Brexit. Burns is completely up to speed and then some on every issue; his Senate confirmation will undoubtedly be a breeze.
We didn’t see The Donald last Friday, but we did briefly meet two of his top lieutenants, chief strategist Steve Bannon and his White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, who were working in a large room that was easily visible as it was framed with windows. The Burnses introduced themselves – and us – and some photos were taken before Priebus and Bannon resumed their work.
The affection the Burnses have for Donald Trump is genuine. They’ve been friends long before Trump became a politician, and they believe in his mission wholeheartedly. The couple are supporters of local police charities in Palm Beach and Trump has stood with them; each year he donates $100,000 to the annual Palm Beach Police Foundation ball which Eileen chairs and hosts at Mar-a-Lago.
Ireland is firmly in the DNA of the Burnses; Eileen’s maiden name is Corroon, and her great-grandfather Michael Corroon was from Co. Westmeath. Her grandfather Richard Aloysius Corroon was a close friend of New York Governor Al Smith.
Having the opportunity to serve their country in Ireland is unquestionably a dream come true for Brian and Eileen Burns. Their excitement and sense of duty is palpable. Ambassadorships are often doled out by presidents as paybacks to mega-donors, but the appointment of Brian Burns is anything but.
A lifelong supporter of Ireland and the arts, a hugely successful businessman and lawyer who has donated millions to Irish causes, Brian Burns has the chance to make a substantial mark in his new role. One thing is for certain -- he’s not going to disappoint.