President Obama and Taoiseach Enda Kenny of Ireland were greeted by a bagpiper in full kilt on Tuesday as they arrived shortly after noon at the annual Friends of Ireland Luncheon on Capitol Hill. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) hosted the festivities in the dark wood-paneled Rayburn Room, and sat beside his two most important guests at the Head Table, along with co-chair of the FOI committee Rep. Peter King (R-NY). All sported green ties. (Above, the President, Boehner and Kenny)
President Obama has been visiting the Hill lately to try to get lawmakers to come to an agreement on budgetary issues, and during his toast he joked about the bipartisan nature of the luncheon.
"We spend the whole year trying to bring this town together, and these leaders are able to do it in a single afternoon. They even get us to dress alike," President Obama said.
"So my question is how long can you stay? Because we’ve got some budget discussions coming up. Perhaps you can be helpful."
First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Northern Ireland and Irish Ambassador Michael Collins were among the eighty guests, who included Members of Congress and other dignitaries seated at round tables decorated with green and white floral arrangements. Pint glasses of Guinness dotted the tables. The menu opened with a hearts of palm salad, followed by rack of lamb entree, served with potatoes. Dessert was Sticky Toffee Pudding with ice cream. Green clover-shaped cookies were also offered.
As he gently needled Boehner during his toast, President Obama noted his own Irish roots; he's related to three families in Moneygall, Ireland on his mother's side.
"But no matter how much green is in your family tree, remember that Speaker Boehner is part-Irish and spent much of his childhood surrounded by characters in his father’s bar, so the rest of us are probably playing for second place in this contest."
There was also a birther joke:
"After visiting my ancestral hometown of Moneygall two years ago, I’ve now seen the official Irish records proving my Irish heritage on my mother’s side," President Obama said, to laughter. "I thought that would come in handy more often, but it turns out that on St. Patrick’s Day, people just take your word for it.
"I’m keeping all my records," he added, to more laughter. "Just in case."
The President added that "I will never forget the magical day that Michelle and I spent in Ireland" in 2011, and added that "I’m very much looking forward to visiting Northern Ireland for the G8 summit this June."
"So on this St. Patty’s Day, let’s remember the Irish -- both those who have left us and those who are with us today, who have fought and bled and labored to make this country a better place for their children and for ours. Let’s give thanks for the men and women who proved that through hard work and perseverance, anybody can earn themselves a piece of the American Dream," President Obama said as he raised his glass.
During his own toast, Boehner teased the President about Vice President Joe Biden, who was not at the luncheon this year thanks to leading the Presidential Delegation to Rome for the investiture of the new pontiff.
"I’d say this is the loudest gathering of Irishmen in Washington since the last time Joe Biden dined alone," Bohener said. "It’s like I’m always telling the President: You only tease the ones you love."
Boehner avoided mentioning the budget conflict, and instead hailed the contributions of Irish Americans, and said that though St. Patrick's Day was the point of the luncheon, "our thoughts are on another celebration, in Rome."
"I know we all pray that the blessings of Ireland’s patron saint are with our new Holy Father."
Boehner also noted that including President Obama, who has maternal roots in Ireland, 22 American presidents can trace their roots to Ireland. (Above, watching tenor Anthony Kearns perform)
"Well, 23 if you count Daniel Day Lewis," Bohener quipped, referencing the actor's star turn in the film Lincoln.
As he raised his glass, the Speaker closed his toast:
"To old stories, old land, and old friends: May you live as long as you want, and never want as long as you live."
The annual luncheon is a time-honored tradition started in 1981 by House Speaker Tip O'Neill, Senator Ted Kennedy, and President Ronald Reagan, who rose above partisan politics to unite in their shared heritage.
Acclaimed Irish tenor Anthony Kearns, one third of The Irish Tenors trio, performed at the luncheon, accompanied by a pianist. His selections were "O'America," "Phil the Fluther," and "The Star of the County Down." The invocation and benediction were delivered by Rev. William Byrne, pastor of St. Peter’s Church on Capitol Hill. The Speaker's office has not released the menu, nor did pool offer details.
The luncheon followed an earlier bilateral meeting in the Oval Office, where the President and Prime Minister reaffirmed their commitment to the US-Ireland relationship.
The President and Taoiseach left the luncheon at 1:34 PM after a short departure ceremony that included a bagpiper. Joined by Rep. King and Boehner, they walked side by side down the steps of the US Capitol. (Above, Kenny, King, the President and Boehner)
President Obama headed back to the White House alone.
The Taoiseach will return to the White House this evening, when the President and First Lady Michelle Obama host their fifth annual St. Patrick's Day reception. The President and Taoiseach will participate in the traditional shamrock ceremony, a tradition since President Harry Truman's administration.
President Obama spent St. Patrick's Day on Sunday quietly at the White House, leaving only for one late-afternoon game of basketball at the Interior Department.
This evening following the reception President Obama departs Washington, heading for the Middle East for the first foreign trip of his second term.
Related: The 2012 Friends of Ireland Luncheon.
*Top photo by Pete Souza/White House; others pool