WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is praising the bond between the people of the United States and Ireland as one of the strongest in the world.
The president says Irish culture and tradition have had a huge impact on American life. Marking St. Patrick’s Day, he said his fondness for Ireland is personal because his mother’s family ancestry could be traced to the country.
Obama met in the Oval Office with Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen as part of a day of events to mark the holiday on Tuesday, festivities that included the White House fountains running green for a day. When asked by a reporter, Obama said he hoped to visit Ireland.
The president joked that while it was great that Cowen got to visit the Oval Office, it was too bad he was missing the Irish parade in Chicago, his hometown.
Later Tuesday, Obama met with Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson and his deputy, Martin McGuinness, in a less high-profile gathering in his national security adviser’s office.
Administration aides singled out Cowen and the Northern Irish duo as leaders who have resisted partisan reactions to a series of killings in Northern Ireland that threatens a decade’s break in violence.
“The president looks forward to commemorating his first St. Patrick’s Day in the White House, a celebration which serves as a reminder of the rich history of friendship that our two countries share,” said Mike Hammer, a National Security Council spokesman, before the meetings.
After a shamrock ceremony at the White House, Obama and the Irish leaders attended a Capitol Hill luncheon celebrating the holiday. Then the Irish guests were invited back to the White House for a cocktail reception Tuesday night, after the Banner’s press deadline, an event that the new president’s aides said was equal parts diplomacy and revelry.
The evening spectacular was to feature Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon from Northern Ireland. The White House also invited Maggie McCarthy, a traditional Irish dancer and musician from Cork, and vocal group Celtic Thunder. The Shannon Rovers, the official pipe band of Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day festival, also were set to perform.
Hammer said Cowen, Robinson and McGuinness “have shown great courage and resolve as they work together to advance peace and prosperity.”
It has been a tense few weeks for those goals.
Two soldiers were fatally shot on March 7 and a policeman murdered two days later. Washington condemned the deaths as senseless acts of political obstruction aimed at destroying the stability in Northern Ireland and supported leaders who urged restraint.
Dissidents have tried to undermine the Irish Republican Army’s 2005 decision to renounce violence and disarm, and Sinn Fein’s efforts to persuade Catholics to cooperate with the police force, once overwhelmingly Protestant but now more than 25 percent Catholic.
Earlier Tuesday, Obama nominated Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney to be the U.S. ambassador to Ireland.
Rooney is a lifelong Republican who endorsed Obama during Pennsylvania’s contentious Democratic primary last year and campaigned for him throughout the election. The president returned the favor by nominating him to the ambassador post, a move that had been the subject of almost fever-pitch speculation in Irish circles in recent days.
“I am honored and grateful that such a dedicated and accomplished individual has agreed to serve as the representative of the United States to the Irish people. Dan Rooney is an unwavering supporter of Irish peace, culture and education,” Obama said in a statement.
The 76-year-old Rooney took over the presidency of the Steelers in 1975 and is a Hall of Fame owner. His team won this year’s Super Bowl, shocking the Arizona Cardinals 27-23 on Santonio Holmes’ tiptoe catch for a touchdown with 35 seconds to play.
Rooney has received the American Ireland Fund’s lifetime achievement award.
The “Rooney Rule,” which requires any team with a head coaching vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate, was developed by an NFL committee Rooney chaired.
On the White House grounds, First Lady Michelle Obama came up with the idea to dye the fountains on the White House’s North and South lawns green, said spokeswoman Katie McCormick Lelyveld. She was inspired by her hometown of Chicago, where the city marks the national holiday of Ireland by dyeing the river green.
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