- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - Call him Barack O’Bama.

As White House fountains ran green for St. Patrick’s Day, the president saluted strong U.S.-Irish ties in a warm welcome for Ireland’s leaders and turned to a critical campaign backer, Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, to fill the post of U.S. ambassador to Ireland.

And in a wee bit of blarney, Obama boasted of Irish ancestry.

“My great-great-great grandfather on my mother’s side hailed from a small village in County Offaly,” he said, recalling a genealogical gem from the campaign fitting for a meeting with Ireland’s prime minister, Brian Cowen.

He even joked to Cowen: “We may be cousins. We haven’t sorted that through yet.”

On a serious note, Obama and his aides pushed to salvage a peace in Northern Ireland during private meetings with political leaders. Obama and Cowen met in the Oval Office; the president held a separate session with Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson and his deputy, Martin McGuinness.

Earlier this month, two soldiers were fatally shot 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.

Obama said it was no surprise that the opponents of a peace would try to undo it.

“The real question was this: When tested, how would the people of Northern Ireland respond?” Obama said in one of his appearances with Cowen. “And 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.”

Administration aides have singled out Cowen, Robinson and McGuinness as leaders who have resisted partisan reactions to a series of killings in Northern Ireland that threatens a decade’s break in violence.

“Not all Americans are Irish, but all Americans support those who stand on the side of peace and peace will prevail,” Obama told Cowen in the Oval Office.

Earlier, Obama tapped Rooney for the ambassadorship. A lifelong Republican, Rooney 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.

The grandson of an Irish immigrant, Rooney in the 1970s helped found the American Ireland Fund, an organization that has raised millions for advocacy of peace and education in Ireland. His legacy is reflected in a Steelers-themed bar in a disused linen mill in one of the roughest parts of northwest Belfast.

From appearance to agenda, the White House was in an unmistakable Irish mood.

The fountains on the White House’s North and South lawns were dyed green, a nod to the Obamas’ hometown of Chicago where the city marks the national holiday of Ireland by dyeing the river green.

On tap for evening festivities _ which Obama described as “rambunctious” to East Room guests _ was green sparkling wine from a California vineyard.

The president took part in a shamrock ceremony at the White House, and Obama and the Irish leaders also attended a Capitol Hill luncheon celebrating the holiday. Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Cowen paid tribute to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who is being treated for brain cancer and was unable to attend. Cowen said Kennedy was “our most special Irishman.”

Obama joked about putting the apostrophe after the “O” in Obama and suggested Barack was an ancient Celtic name. Addressing Cowen, he said, “I hope our efforts today put me on the path of earning that apostrophe.”

The Irish guests returned to the White House for a cocktail reception Tuesday night. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon from Northern Ireland was to be featured. 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.

Obama encouraged the Irish guests, senior members of his administration and members of Congress to stay as long as they liked. By midevening, the crowd packed the mansion’s first floor and already were boisterous, with conversations elsewhere in the building echoing over the president’s remarks.

Obama joked about the free-flowing bar and warned his guests not to wear lampshades on their heads in front of the cameras. He later went off his remarks to get laughs about Ireland’s popular stout.

“Guinness tastes very different in Ireland,” Obama said. “It is much better. You guys are keeping the good stuff for yourselves.”


Associated Press writers Ben Feller, Natasha Metzler, Kim Hefling and Julie Pace in Washington and Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin, Ireland, contributed to this report.

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