Why Is the Irish Prime Minister About to Give Obama Some Shamrocks?

The 60-year tradition that made St. Patrick’s Day what it is today.

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny and President Obama during the St. Patrick's Day reception at the White House in 2013.
National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
March 14, 2014, 4:31 a.m.

St. Patrick’s Day is a time for tra­di­tion. People in green wigs pour a glass to Ir­ish her­it­age, wheth­er they’re Ir­ish or not. Chica­go dyes its river green, a bright­er shade than its usu­al murk. And the prime min­is­ter of Ire­land travels to the United States to give the pres­id­ent a bowl of sham­rocks.

Many of these tra­di­tions have their own bizarre his­tor­ies, but it’s the last one — to be con­tin­ued to­night at the White House — that had an un­likely be­gin­ning, start­ing in 1952 dur­ing Pres­id­ent Tru­man’s time in of­fice.

Re­la­tions between Ire­land and the U.S. have not al­ways been as cor­di­al as they are now. Ire­land took a neut­ral stance dur­ing World War II, join­ing neither the Al­lies nor the Ax­is. This po­s­i­tion delayed Ir­ish entry in­to the United Na­tions un­til Decem­ber 1955. 

In an at­tempt to mend ties, then-Ir­ish Am­bas­sad­or John Hearne dropped off a box of sham­rocks at the White House on St. Patrick’s Day while Tru­man was va­ca­tion­ing in Key West. The fol­low­ing year, Hearne was in­vited back to the White House to de­liv­er a bowl of sham­rocks to Pres­id­ent Eis­en­hower per­son­ally.

The Ir­ish prime min­is­ter, known as the Taoiseach (pro­nounced “tea-shook”), first de­livered the sham­rocks to the pres­id­ent in 1956, of­fi­cially mak­ing the event an an­nu­al tra­di­tion. Though some­times an am­bas­sad­or would de­liv­er the gift, every prime min­is­ter since has met with the pres­id­ent at least once. Pres­id­ent Clin­ton set the pre­ced­ent of meet­ing only with the prime min­is­ter.

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The event has al­ways held polit­ic­al sig­ni­fic­ance. In the be­gin­ning, it was to show that Ire­land aligned it­self polit­ic­ally with the West dur­ing the Cold War. When Pres­id­ent Kennedy, an Ir­ish-Amer­ic­an, came to of­fice, it be­came an even lar­ger spec­tacle. Kennedy, in fact, traveled to Ire­land and ad­dressed the par­lia­ment there in 1963. Dur­ing the Nix­on years, the ritu­al gained im­port­ance again be­cause of the con­flict in North­ern Ire­land, and it has con­tin­ued ever since.

The sham­rock, a three-leafed clover, is the un­of­fi­cial sym­bol of Ire­land. St. Patrick is said to have used it to ex­plain the Holy Trin­ity of Chris­tian­ity to the pa­gan kings of Ire­land in the Fifth Cen­tury. People in Ire­land wore the sham­rock to com­mem­or­ate the coun­try’s con­ver­sion to Chris­tian­ity — a tra­di­tion that im­mig­rants brought to the U.S.

The bowl the prime min­is­ter presents to the pres­id­ent is made of either sil­ver or cut glass, “sym­bol­iz­ing the on­go­ing tra­di­tion of crafts­man­ship, skill, and at­ten­tion to de­tail,” said Ir­ish Em­bassy spokes­man Ral­ph Vic­tory.

Fri­day night, Ir­ish Prime Min­is­ter Enda Kenny will con­tin­ue that tra­di­tion at a White House re­cep­tion with Pres­id­ent Obama. It’s this an­nu­al gift of sham­rocks to the U.S. pres­id­ent, many ar­gue, that has made St. Patrick’s Day a main­stream hol­i­day cel­eb­rated not just by the Ir­ish. Be­fore, small com­munit­ies cel­eb­rated the hol­i­day across the U.S., primar­ily in lar­ger cit­ies like New York, Bo­ston, and Chica­go.

So, this week­end, when you’re drink­ing green beer, raise a toast to Am­bas­sad­or Hearne. You may not have had that lep­re­chaun hat if he hadn’t dropped off the sham­rocks in the first place.

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