Colum Kenny: Kenny may envy the hero's welcome given to Cosgrave
Cardinal George's 'snub' is seen by some as a measure of Vatican-State discord, writes Colum Kenny
Did Chicago's Cardinal Francis George mean to snub Enda Kenny? George denies it, but a report last weekend in Chicago's Sun-Times suggested otherwise.
When Taoiseach Enda Kenny arrives in Chicago on March 16, he will be following in the footsteps of his party's founder, WT Cosgrave. When Cosgrave made the first American trip of any serving Irish prime minister (then known as 'President of the Executive'), he was met by massive crowds and addressed 5,000 guests at the venue where Kenny will speak next week.
Reporting the decision by Cardinal Francis George to attend a retreat instead of dining with Kenny, Michael Sneed of the Chicago Sun-Times speculated last weekend that his absence is part of an Ireland-Vatican tiff that has seen the Irish Government close its embassy to the Holy See.
But the cardinal's office denies it. When the Irish Fellowship Club invited Cardinal George, as they do every year, they did not tell him that the Taoiseach would be there. George had already committed himself to saying the final prayer at a retreat for young adults that ends on the same evening.
The Irish Fellowship Club is one of the main pillars of Irish America. Among its presidents has been city boss Mayor Richard J Daly, who played a key role in the election of John F Kennedy as US president.
The Chicago club organised a hero's welcome for WT Cosgrave, who arrived in "the windy city" from New York in January 1928 on an overnight train laced with ice and snow.
Among the party welcoming Cosgrave was Police Captain Patrick J Collins, "a brother of the famous Michael Collins, who was killed in the recent civil war in Ireland", as the Chicago Daily News put it.
Others waiting on the platform included city aldermen in silk hats and tails. This formal dress was a sign that the Irish had arrived socially, and were no long poverty-stricken or ill-educated. Many thousands thronged the streets to see Cosgrave, of whom an enormous portrait draped in green, white and orange was hung on the main station.
Enda Kenny should be so lucky. Like Cosgrave, he goes to America at a time when Ireland is struggling financially. He too must strike the right note.
In 1928, the Washington Post noted that Chicago had welcomed Cosgrave and his party "not as fawners for funds", but as men "doing their work in the building of a state newly come into the comity of nations".
Kenny may find himself explaining how Cosgrave's successors in government did so much to undo years of progress.
Cosgrave boarded the train for Chicago with the blessings of Cardinal Hayes of New York. Now, Cardinal George's office says that it would not have made any difference had he known that Kenny would be at the Irish Fellowship Club dinner. When their man makes a commitment, they say, he keeps it.
Recently, as his spokeswoman told me, Pope Benedict invited George to give a talk to bishops who had gathered in Rome to be elevated to the rank of cardinal next day. But George was due in Chicago to meet 300 parish leaders and went home.
Sources close to George believe that some members of the Fellowship Club who dislike the cardinal fed Sneed his story.
They describe it as "disingenuous" and say that his absence is being misinterpreted. He has now sent a letter to the club to convey his good wishes to the Taoiseach.
But US bishops are currently embroiled in political acrimony with the US government as they set themselves against Barack Obama's efforts to require employers to offer preventive care for their employees, including free birth control. This measure could see Catholic-run universities, schools and hos-pitals effectively obliged to fund contraceptive services, and is opposed by the US hierarchy as a violation of religious liberty.
Just last week, George appeared to reject an attempted compromise by President Barack Obama.
The cardinal told the Chicago Tribune that: "The larger issue here is whether or not the government can tell what is a Catholic institution, therefore part of the Church, (that) this is what you must do in order to be part of Health Care in our society."
George added, in words that may sound ominous to the US Democratic Party as it prepares for a presidential election: "I am sure that there will be other communications and letters in the months to come because this is going to be a long conversation."
In such a fraught context, it is easy to see how George's absence from dinner with Enda Kenny (at a club whose dinners the cardinal has attended before) might be seen as a signal concerning Vatican-State relations on both sides of the Atlantic.
Family values have influenced recent US politics, not least when opponents of gay marriage helped to tip the state of Ohio narrowly in favour of George Bush in 2004. Research suggests that Protestant voters may be more influenced than are Catholics by such single issues.
But Cardinal George made his own views clear on Fox Television when he recently compared some gay rights activists who interrupt Catholic events and use anti-Catholic rhetoric to the notorious anti-Catholic and racist Ku Klux Klan.
At least Enda Kenny and his party will be able to relax and drown the Shamrock on St Patrick's Day if they wish to do so. Cosgrave visited the USA during the Prohibition period, when alcohol was illegal there and could only be bought under the counter. In a flash of dry humour, Cosgrave replied when asked in Chicago what he thought of Prohibition: "That is not one of Ireland's many problems."
The Chicago Daily News reported that: "William Thomas Cosgrave, president of the Irish Free State, a mild little man with the soft hands and skin of a girl, arrived in Chicago at the La Salle street station and was washed out into Chicago's icy cold on a sea of silk hats."
Not only did thousands pack the pavements to greet WT Cosgrave, but he received media exposure of a kind that Enda Kenny might envy. Cosgrave's speech to the Irish Fellowship Club was broadcast live to millions of radio listeners across the USA, and newspapers proclaimed his "Huge Chicago Welcome".
Chicago's Herald-Examiner reported: "Throngs hail Cosgrave." The latter appreciated such coverage and, before he left Chicago, thanked a famous press baron of that time, saying: "Ireland will never forget William Randolph Hearst, who has always been one of her best and truest friends."
Perhaps Cardinal George would visit those adults in retreat at some other hour on March 16. That way he could join Enda Kenny for dinner, and help to mend fences between Church and State that the hierarchy's handling of sex abuse scandals has left badly damaged.
Professor Colum Kenny of DCU is writing an essay on James O'Shaughnessy, journalist and adman and one of the founders of the Irish Fellowship Club