President Obama noted that today’s shamrock ceremony was a first for both him and Irish Prime Minister "Taoiseach" Brian Cowen, but "with a little bit of luck, I’m sure we’ll get it right."
In the audience: various Irish-American members of congress, Middle East envoy and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, and brand new ambassador to Ireland-designee Dan Rooney.
"Before I turn it over to Taoiseach, it turns out that we have something in common," President Obama said. "He hails from County Offlay, and it was brought to my attention on the campaign that my great-great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side came to America from a small village in this county as well. We are still speculating on whether we are related."
Stephen Neill, an Anglican rector in Ireland, recently concluded that that Fulmuth Kearney, Obama’s great-great-great-grandfather, was raised in Moneygall and in 1850 — at age 19 — left for America.
Said Cowen, "Mr. President, you were saying you’re trying to work out if we are related or not. I just want to say that I have checked and unfortunately there are no Kearneys on the electoral register anymore in my electoral district. And if there were, I can assure you, I’d have them on my campaign team."
President Obama joked that since today is a day "for all the people of America and Ireland to celebrate our shared history and our shared future with joy and good cheer … I can’t think of a better place to take the Taoiseach for lunch than the Congress."
The room erupted in laughter.
"That was good, wasn’t it?" Mr. Obama said. "You like that? We’ll be heading there shortly for the annual speaker’s St. Patrick’s Day luncheon, a tradition in which Democrats and Republicans put aside partisanship and unite around one debate only: Who is more Irish than whom?"
Both leaders addressed the violence that has broken out in Ireland in recent days.
Cowen referenced the recent appearance of "an evil, unrepresentative to tiny minority has challenged democratic institutions which we have built together in Ireland. The people of Ireland, north and south, have risen to that challenge. They have spoken with one voice; they have rejected violence and division, they have stood by peace, reconciliation, democracy and freedom."
Turning to the president, Cowen said, "Mr. President, there is a phrase in the Irish language. It’s Fedir Linn. It may seem familiar. Translation says, ‘Yes you can.’ In that spirit and in the spirit of friendship between our two countries, I am pleased to present you this bowl of shamrocks."
The president said, "let me try that again. It’s Fedir Linn."
"Fedir Linn," said Taoiseach.
"Fedir Linn," the president repeated. "All right. I got that. ‘Yes we can.’"
Mr. Obama thanked "the Taoiseach and the people of Ireland for this beautiful bowl of shamrocks" and then went on to "share briefly a few words about the recent attacks in Northern Ireland."
Violence has exploded in Ireland in recent days; last week police constable Stephen Carroll was killed, the first murder of a policeman since 1998, which was claimed by an IRA splinter group called the Continuity Irish Republican Army. Two days before Carroll was killed, two soldiers were killed in an attack at the British army’s Massereene base northwest of Belfast.
"Almost 11 years ago, the world watched with wonder as brave men and women found the courage to see past the scars of generations of violence and mistrust and come together around a future of peace," said the president. "We watched with hope as the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland went to the ballot box and overwhelmingly endorsed such a peaceful future. But every peace process is challenged by those who would seek to destroy it, and no one every believed that this extraordinary endeavor would be any different.
"We knew that there would be setbacks," the president said. "We knew that there would be false starts. We knew that the opponents of peace would trot out the same old tired violence of the past in hopes that this young agreement would be too fragile to hold.
"The real question was this: When tested, how would the people of Northern Ireland respond?" The president asked. "Now we know the answer. They responded heroically. They and their leaders on both sides have condemned this violence and refrained from the old partisan impulses. They’ve shown they judge progress by what you build, and not what you tear down, and they know that the future is too important to cede to those who are mired in the past. The thoughts and prayers of Americans everywhere go out to the families of the fallen."
The president concluded: "I want everyone listening to know this: The United States will always stand with those who work toward peace. After seeing former adversaries mourning and praying and working together this week, I’ve never been more confident that peace will prevail."