THE ST PATRICK’S Day tradition of presenting Irish shamrock to the White House started back in 1952 during President Harry Truman’s time in office. Taoiseach Enda Kenny didn’t present the bowl of shamrock to President Barack Obama today as he is in Chicago. He will, however, fit in the presentation before he heads back to Ireland in the next few days.
But harking back to that first occasion – it wasn’t the photo opportunity it’s taken for nowadays: Truman was not actually in Washington at the time and the then-Irish ambassador John Joseph Hearne simply dropped a box of shamrock off at the White House.
Dr Michael Kennedy, executive editor of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy (DIFP), says that Hearne’s actions were influenced by a desire to strengthen Ireland’s damaged relations with the US following WWII and the Irish government’s policy of neutrality.
“Hearne was rather go-ahead for an ambassador at the time. Others tended to just get involved in Irish communities and their politics, but St Patrick’s Day was one way for Hearne to improve Irish-American relations which were really in bad shape after the war,” Kennedy told TheJournal.ie.
“Anglo-Irish relations had improved by early 1946, but there was a US diplomat in Dublin at the time who had no time for the De Valera administration. His reports filtered back to Washington through the State Department and there was a lot of anti-Irish opinion in that department. Hearne wanted to make a pitch to the White House that would bypass the State Department.”
Ever since, the tradition of bringing Irish shamrock to the White House has offered Irish politicians an opportunity to have a few minutes in person with the US president – an opportunity that would otherwise be unavailable to a country the size of Ireland:
You couldn’t do it if you were Belize or Luxembourg; you don’t ring up and get added to the president’s diary. It allows us via our ambassador or the Taoisech to get direct contact and get a message across, whether it’s that Ireland is a good destination to visit or to do business in. And you also have the opportunity to invite the president over to Ireland.
Hearne’s gesture also led to St Patrick’s Day being celebrated by a much wider demographic in the US than before.
Previously, the saint’s day was celebrated by small Irish communities and groups. Kennedy says that the White House visit helped to modernise the holiday. “Instead of a small ethnic gathering or a primarily New York-based event,” he said. “St Patrick’s Day became something much more important because of the White House element. It’s going to get on the front page of newspapers and in the White House list of ceremonies.”
In pictures: Shamrock sessions at the White House: