Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What's with the Shamrocks?

Each year the Irish Prime Minister (An Taoiseach) visits the White House on or around St. Patrick's Day for what has become known as the Shamrock Ceremony, where he presents a Waterford Crystal bowl filled with shamrock to the President of the United States in recognition of the two countries special bond. The official exchange and photo op is joyfully followed by a festive reception for guests at the White House. The festivities actually begin much earlier in the day with a sit down St. Patrick's Day lunch. This tradition began, on a much smaller scale, during the Truman administration when, in 1952, the Irish Ambassador to the US John Hearne dropped off a box of shamrock plant to the White House. Ironically President Truman was not home at the time but rather on vacation. 

So what's all the fuss about? 

To answer that question we need to go back to the founding of the countries. Anyone who has read modern history would have little choice but to appreciate the strong connection between the US and Ireland. A few notables: 

  • Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence eight (8) were Irish Americans, three (3) of whom were Irish born - James Smith, George Taylor and Matthew Thornton. 
  • Many Irish fought and died in the American Civil War. 
  • The Irish Proclamation of Independence (Easter Proclamation) of April 24, 1916 specifically mentions America in its text: 
"... she (Ireland) now seizes that moment, and supported by her exiled children in America ..."

America continued to be a bastion of support for Irish independence and consequently for peace in the northern part of the country. Many Irish of course immigrated to the United States to work and send money back home to aid their families in Ireland. The first shamrock ceremony, as referenced earlier, was post World War II and there is some thought that Hearne was motivated to try and warm the relationship with the US given Ireland's neutrality during the war. 

With different administrations came different levels of interest in the tradition. Obviously the election of John F. Kennedy was a game changer in terms of recognition and appreciation of not just Irish heritage but also Catholicism. As the first Catholic ever elected to the Office of the President, JFK was the embodiment for so many Irish and Irish Americans of what they and their families had sought - recognition, acceptance and, most of all, respect. Other Administrations followed and all maintained the shamrock ceremony on or around St. Patrick's Day. President Ronald Reagan, a very proud Irish American, found particular enjoyment with the ceremony and added speaking programs as a way to educate Americans about the current state of affairs in Ireland, as did President Bill Clinton. Clinton, however, changed the dynamic considerably by adding a political element in his proactive and unwavering support of peace in Northern Ireland. His interest was made clear early on when as a candidate he acknowledged that he would advocate for a visa for Gerry Adams - the leader of the Sinn Fein political party in Northern Ireland. It was a risk as both a candidate and as a President but the gamble paid off and Clinton's administration was integral in helping to shape and realize the Good Friday Agreement, with incredible contributions from people like former Senator George Mitchell. Accordingly, Clinton's White House St. Patrick's Day guests included not only An Taoiseach and the Ambassadors but also the political leaders from Northern Ireland - a first. 

Today the ceremony is mainly celebratory where the political leader of Ireland is provided a unique opportunity to present his American "wish list" for Ireland to the leader of the free world. In recent years, a key focus has been the economic ties between Ireland and the US, particularly foreign direct investment from America into Ireland, and immigration reform to assist the undocumented Irish in America. 

This year's St. Patrick's Day visit will be interesting to say the least. The political climate in both countries is, in many respects, unprecedented. Despite considerable criticism he has received at home, Taoiseach Enda Kenny is scheduled to travel to the US for St Patrick's Day to visit with President Trump. The traditional asks on behalf of his country, however, will be met with a different set of ears than he may be used to. Trump has demonstrated a very different view of immigrants than that of, at the very least, his immediate predecessor and many believe is uninterested in working to find ways to integrate any of the so-called undocumented - Irish or otherwise. Further, he supports a tax on imported American goods which are produced by American companies abroad and wants to see a revamp of the US tax code, which in part will be aimed at enticing US companies with foreign HQs and/or operations to physically and legally return home. Many such US companies currently call Ireland home. 

Unfortunately for Enda Kenny, this could very well be his last visit to the White House as Taoiseach. He is currently under considerable political stress in his own government and could quite possibly be out of office in 8-10 weeks time. Add to all of this the sobering consequences of Brexit and the possibility that Ireland may be forced back to the days of a physical border between the Republic and the 6 counties of the North, it makes for a critically important and potentially challenging exchange between the two leaders over the shamrock bowl. 

Regardless of politics, it is indeed encouraging to see that the time honored tradition of the shamrock ceremony will continue into the Trump Administration. It could even lead to other things in the future. I have no idea if President Trump has any Irish heritage. President Obama did not learn of his Irish lineage until he was in the White House - a fact he pointed out at one of his St. Patrick's Day lunches by commenting that such knowledge, as a son of Chicago, could have delivered him to Washington "sooner". Could there be a Moneygall in Trump's future? We can only speculate - I for one would be curious to see the kind of reception he would receive compared to the likes of Kennedy and Obama. 

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