Great American Stories: Shamrock Diplomacy

Great American Stories: Shamrock Diplomacy
(Aimee Dilger/The Times Leader via AP)
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The big St. Patrick’s Day parades were canceled in Europe as well as the United States. Ireland’s prime minister cut short his annual American trip, avoiding New York City. Capitol Hill will not be the scene of drinking and music today. As was true at thousands of other bars and restaurants in this country, The Dubliner, Washington’s iconic Irish pub, reluctantly closed its doors, not just for St. Patrick’s Day but for the foreseeable future.

One by one, these closures and alterations in the cherished traditions and regular routines of our daily lives are bringing home to each of us the dimensions of this crisis. For college students and their families, it was the cancelation of classes, along with “March Madness.” For baseball fans, it was the suspension of spring training and indefinite postponement of Opening Day. For lovers of horse racing, it was the postponing of the Kentucky Derby until September.

But dispensing with such social pastimes has only been the beginning. It’s not just theaters, movie houses, and concert halls that have been closed. Also, Apple stores, libraries, gyms, swimming pools, dentist offices. Americans are told by their political leaders to work from home. But for those who can’t, these are more than days of economic uncertainty. They are days of fear. Americans who live by themselves face heightened challenges. Loneliness is no small thing. Meanwhile, the elderly have been warned that this virus is their particular enemy.

What can we do? In the coming days (weeks? months?) I’ll highlight not just how America coped with other crises in the past, but how we and our fellow quarantined citizens of the world are doing so now.

I’ll start with a St. Patrick’s Day story.

* * *

You may have missed it amid the other news, but the both the annual St. Patrick’s-themed White House visit by Ireland’s prime minister and the House speaker’s luncheon were held on Capitol Hill this year. The White House visit featured comic relief in an unexpected substitute for the non-handshake between President Trump and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

There was nothing funny about Trump’s snub of the traditional luncheon. He blamed Nancy Pelosi, of course. Neither Trump nor Pelosi are Irish, but before my fellow Irish Americans get too high on their horse, please remember that Germans, Scots, and Italians hardly have a monopoly on nursing grievances. Remember the old one-liner about “Irish Alzheimer’s”? (You forget everything, but the grudge.) But I digress.

The tradition of Ireland’s ambassador bringing shamrocks to the White House dates to the last year of President Truman’s time in office. Although I’m not sure Harry Truman was even home when the first shamrocks were delivered in March of 1952, this gesture eventually evolved into having the taoiseach come from Dublin and personally deliver the famed clover to the president.

In the early 1980s, House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill used the occasion to host a bipartisan lunch on Capitol Hill. Initially, it wasn’t international diplomacy that motivated O’Neill. His goal was a thaw in relations between himself and another Irish American pol, Ronald Reagan.

“I’m going to cook you some Boston corned beef and I’m going to have an Irish storyteller there,” O’Neill promised Reagan, according to the official House historian.

“I’ll have to polish up some new Irish jokes,” Reagan replied.

President Reagan did tell jokes at those annual get-togethers, and I’ll pass along my favorite another time. This morning, I want to remember Tip O’Neill, whose love of St. Patrick’s Day was deep and abiding. On St. Patrick’s Day in 1966, a decade before he became speaker, the tall and burly 53-year-old Massachusetts congressman asked for a minute of time to address his colleagues.

“Mr. Speaker, today we honor St. Patrick,” he began. “Were you in Boston, one would say, ‘Top of the morning to you.’ And your response would be, ‘And the rest of the day to you.’

O’Neill spoke briefly about St. Patrick’s missionary work in Ireland -- and the legend of how he used to clover leaf to minister to the local people -- before reading aloud a short poem that had been recited the year before by fellow Boston Democratic Rep. James A. Burke:

A little sprig of shamrock
Is a symbol we hold dear
A little sprig of shamrock
When we wear it every year
A little sprig of shamrock
So many things convey
As it travels out across the world
To be worn on St. Patrick’s Day. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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