The Irish will be celebrating Barack Obama's ascension to the presidency in style next week amid signs that the Obama operation is reaching out quickly to leading Irish Americans. Several Irish activists have received premium VIP seats for the inauguration, a sure sign that the new administration is taking the role of outreach to ethnic groups seriously. In addition, the new administration has already committed to the continuation of the St. Patrick's Day events which will be highlighted by the meeting between Taoiseach (Prime Minster) Brian Cowen and Obama. The value of an early meeting with the new president when all the world is beating a path to his door will not be lost on the Irish government. Meanwhile, as inauguration week looms, the Irish are gearing up to commemorate the great occasion with two important events. The happy coincidence that the main Irish landmark in D.C., the Phoenix Park Hotel, is very close to the Capitol where he will be sworn in means that the two major Irish events will take place there. First up, on Monday, January 19, is a "Presidential Celebration and Brunch" hosted by the Council for American Ireland Relations, or CAIR. Though it's a new organization, the organizers of CAIR are all well known names, led by Brian O'Dwyer, the New York lawyer and activist. Also a founder is Carol Wheeler, who was the Obama liaison to the Irish American community during the campaign - and a very fine job she did too. O'Dwyer states that the brunch will be an opportunity to celebrate for Irish American Democrats after eight years of the Bush administration. More importantly, he says it will be a chance to meet and greet some of the leading Irish American politicians who played important roles in the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party. While no names have been mentioned, there is clearly an open invitation to Vice President-elect Joe Biden, Senators Chris Dodd, Edward Kennedy, Patrick Leahy and Hillary Clinton to come and join in the festivities, not to mention Congressman Richie Neal, head of the Friends of Ireland in Congress, and numerous other Democratic colleagues. The following evening, after the inauguration, the fun really begins with an Irish inaugural ball hosted by the doyenne of Irish American Democrats, Stella O'Leary. O'Leary has been a fixture in Democratic party politics in Washington for years now, and no one has worked harder to raise Ireland's profile in the nation's capital. Again the venue will be the Phoenix Park Hotel. The ball has proven so popular that an extra room has been set aside because the main ballroom is already booked solid. "We are absolutely booked solid and we could fill the ballroom three or four times over," O'Leary told me last week. "There has been a phenomenal response." Again, there are high hopes that Hillary and Bill Clinton, beloved by Irish American Democrats, will show up and it is widely expected that they will make an appearance. Other senior figures from the Democratic Party can also be expected, but if Ted Kennedy managed to make it there is no question that he would receive the greatest reception of all. Kennedy played a powerful role in placing Obama in the White House, and it would be a cruel twist of fate if his illness prevents him from cashing in on the history he helped achieve. The best wishes of all in the Irish community will be with him and the new president in the tough times ahead.
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