Tuesday, March 20, 2012

President Obama, Taoiseach Kenny Attend Speaker Boehner's Friends Of Ireland Luncheon

"Even in the midst of partisanship and passion, true friendship can exist in this town"...
Bagpipers and drummers lined the steps of the US Capitol on Tuesday as House Speaker John Boehner welcomed President Obama and Taoiseach Enda Kenny of Ireland to the annual "Friends of Ireland Luncheon." Held in the Rayburn Room, there were about 100 guests seated at tables decorated with floral centerpieces of white roses, calla lilies and green hydrangea. The delayed celebration of St. Patrick's Day followed President Obama's closed-press morning meeting with Kenny at the White House. It was congenial, given the kerfuffle transpiring in the media with the release of the Republicans' FY 2013 budget today. (Above: An art shot of the President and Boehner listening to Kenny address the guests)

The luncheon tradition was started by President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill, who were bipartisan drinking buddies. The President and Boehner both spoke about their forbears in their toasts, with Boehner noting that it is the 100th anniversary of O'Neill's birth.

"(Tip) taught us that even in the midst of partisanship and passion, true friendship can exist in this town," President Obama said. "Tip and President Reagan famously had fierce battles and genuine disagreements. But after the work ended, the two men did their best to put partisanship aside."

President Obama sat beside Boehner at a table near the stage, with Kenny on the Speaker's other side. Irish tenor David O’Leary entertained the crowd with traditional Irish tunes, including "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" and "Danny Boy." Boehner was spotted tearing up during the performance. Vice President Joe Biden was at the table behind the President and the Speaker, where House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was also seated.

In his toast, the President also made sure to reference his maternal Irish Roots, which date back to a shoemaker named Falmouth Kearny, who emigrated from the tiny village of Moneygall in the 1790s. Close to 30 million Americans--a hefty voting bloc--claim Irish ancestry.

"Never has anyone taught us more about the value of faith and friendship; about the capacity of the human spirit; about the simple truth that it’s harder to disagree when we recognize ourselves in each other," President Obama said of the Irish.

The President and Mrs. Obama host a belated St. Patrick's Day reception at the White House this evening, where they will welcome hundreds of guests for more celebrating in the East Room. (Above: Boehner, the President and Kenny ont he Capitol steps after the lunch)

The transcripts of the President and Speaker's remarks:

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release
March 20, 2012


U.S. Capitol

12:58 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. (Applause.) Please. Well, thank you, John. Thank you, everybody. I know we are all glad to welcome Taoiseach Kenny and his lovely wife back to Washington. Technically, you may be aware, it is not St. Patrick’s Day. (Laughter.) Of course, technically, most Americans who celebrate St. Patrick’s Day are not Irish. So it’s a wash. (Laughter.)

I want to thank our top Irishman in the White house, Joe Biden, who is here, and Speaker Boehner, for being such a gracious host. I want to welcome Ambassador Collins and Mrs. Collins; distinguished members of the House and the Senate; leaders from Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Britain. Thank you all for coming.

I always think about how every Taoiseach must leave this luncheon marveling at how cheerful and bipartisan Washington is. (Applause.) It's remarkable. And that’s something worth aspiring to, even during an election year.

As John mentioned, this wonderful tradition began with Speaker Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan. And when I was getting ready this morning, I came across some advice that Tip gave to anybody who was making a St. Patrick’s Day speech. As the story goes, Tip was once asked to deliver a speech to the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in Pennsylvania. He figured the Irishmen would arrive early, perhaps have a few drinks, relax a little bit, and by the time he stood up to speak, they would applaud anything he said as long as he kept it short.

Then, as Tip was getting dressed, one of the -- his aides ran up to him, out of breath, and said he had just found out that no drinking was allowed before dinner -- only afterwards. And Tip panicked a little bit. He realized he had to prepare. So he grabbed a few pages from "Famous Irishmen of America," underlined some passages, acted like he had planned it all along. The speech went extraordinarily well, and afterwards, he was complimented on his thoroughness and studiousness in preparing for the speech.

So Tip’s lesson was: Always know your audience, and don’t count on drinks getting you through the evening. (Laughter.)

But Tip also taught us something else. He taught us that even in the midst of partisanship and passion, true friendship can exist in this town. Tip and President Reagan famously had fierce battles and genuine disagreements. But after the work ended, the two men did their best to put partisanship aside. According to Tip, President Reagan used to begin calls with, "Hello, Tip, is it after 6 o'clock?" (Laughter.) To which the Speaker would reply, "Absolutely, Mr. President." And then they could enjoy each other's company.

For his part, the President said he always knew Tip was behind him, even if it was just at the State of the Union -- (laughter) -- whispering to the Vice President after every policy proposal, "Forget it." (Laughter.) "No way." "Fat chance." (Laughter.) I can relate. (Laughter.)

So it is no surprise that the two proud Irishmen came together to start this luncheon -- with the Speaker promising to cook some Boston corned beef, and the President offering to "polish up some new Irish jokes." Later, our friend Ted Kennedy and others persuaded Taoiseach to join them. And today, the only argument we have is over who has more green in their family tree.

For once, I have some bragging rights here. Last spring, the Taoiseach and Mrs. Kenny hosted Michelle and I for a wonderful visit to Ireland. And one of the highlights was a trip to the small village of Moneygall, where my great-great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side lived before he set sail for America. I met my eighth cousin, Henry -- who has my ears, I might point out. (Laughter.) We had a pint of Guinness at the local pub. And I got a chance to see firsthand the kind of hospitality that the bighearted people of Ireland have always been known for.

So today is about celebrating those people -- as well as the tens of millions of Americans who trace their heritage across the ocean to the Emerald Isle. Never has a nation so small had such an enormous impact on another. Never has anyone taught us more about the value of faith and friendship; about the capacity of the human spirit; about the simple truth that it’s harder to disagree when we recognize ourselves in each other -- which is easier to do when we’re all wearing green.

So to Taoiseach Kenny, I want to thank you and Fionnuala for joining us here today. And I want to thank the people of Ireland for their friendship, now and always. Cheers. (Applause.)

END 1:03 P.M. EDT

Speaker Boehner's remarks:

“It’s truly humbling to host an event for a country known for its warm hospitality. That Irish greeting, ‘a hundred thousand welcomes,’ says it all.

“Prime Minister, it’s been a remarkable year for you in this regard. You welcomed the President and First Lady of the United States. You also received the Queen of England …. the first visit to Ireland by an English monarch in a century. And I’m told that down at Mahony’s Point in County Kerry, you gave a ‘lesson’ in reading putts to Rory McIlroy. Surely this explains how Rory became the #1 golfer in the world.

“Now, I’d like to think I know a thing or two about hospitality. I grew up working in my dad’s tavern, mopping floors and waiting tables … learned how to deal with every character who walked in the door. Trust me when I say these lessons are valuable to me when dealing with members of the United States House of Representatives.

“I also learned hospitality is about much more than welcoming someone into your home or your pub. It’s about welcoming them into your heart. Listening, finding a common bond, and giving more than we receive … that’s true hospitality. This is what the Irish have done so well, and for so long.

“It’s how a humble servant who arrived in Ireland poor in wealth but rich in spirit became its patron saint. In a vision, Irish spirits urged Patrick: ‘Come back to Erin, and walk among us.’ So he did, bringing with him the light of truth and the love of God. He traveled farm by farm, welcome to stay however long it took to deliver his teachings and build a church that would pass them on.

“Patrick was overwhelmed with Irish hospitality … he had to turn down many gifts. ‘If I have demonstrated any small thing,’ he wrote, ‘remember that it was all God’s gift.’

“This is why Americans greatly admire the Irish … you show the world how hospitality can be a source of pride and a force for good.

“This is a special year for our proud tradition. Here in the States, we are honoring the 100th birthday of Speaker Tip O’Neill, a great-great grandson of Cork.

“He co-founded the Friends of Ireland to support the Irish people when peace and unity were still elusive. Tip was so devoted to the Irish he once mused about becoming Ambassador to the Emerald Isle. To this, President Reagan responded, ‘Tip, the Irish aren't looking for Speakers, they're looking for listeners.’

“In a show of solidarity, Tip invited Irish prime minister Garret FitzGerald to address the United States Congress on March 15, 1984. Dr. FitzGerald was a man of great decency who spent most of his life in public service and worked tirelessly for peace. Sadly, he passed away last spring, a terrible loss for the Irish people and the world.

“Prime Minister, I’d like to present you with a picture from that historic day. May it serve as a reminder of our shared blessings and the promise of a hundred thousand more welcomes between our peoples."

*Top photo be Pete Souza/White House; others by Getty/pool