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Warm welcome as Paddywagon rolls up to door of White House

THE 44th President of the United States looked out over the room on Capitol Hill where some of of America's most powerful politicians were crammed together around tables, and chatted about his Irish roots.

The Taoiseach was from County Offaly, he explained.

"I can trace my ancestry there as well. I believe it's my great-great-great-great-great-grandpa, who was a bootmaker," he said.

And then Barack Obama let loose one of his trademark dazzling grins.

"I actually discovered my Irish lineage when I was running for president, and my first thought was, 'Why didn't anyone discover this when I was running for office in Chicago?'

"I would've got here sooner," he said wryly as legislators from both sides of the deeply partisan House of Congress were united in laughter.

It was a glorious day in Washington DC. The temperature had soared overnight into spring warmth, and the air was bright with talk of the 'Luck of the Irish'.

The beleaguered natives of the Auld Sod may not be feeling particularly fortunate at the moment, enveloped by general doom and despondency over the rickety economy, but being Irish in Washington DC is still worth a few bucks in political capital (or Capitol).

For once again the Paddywagon rolled into town and right up to the front door of the White House, with the Taoiseach being granted access to the Leader of the Free World -- the envy of many a country whose economies haven't careered over the side of a cliff.

And so the metaphorical green carpet was rolled out for Brian Cowen yesterday by Mr Obama, even though he is busily engaged in a titanic struggle with congress this week to ram through his enormous healthcare bill.

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And there was even an extra addition to the St Patrick's Day beano.

The day began with breakfast at Joe's -- as in the residence of the vice-president, Joe Biden, a beautiful New England-style house in Georgetown, cream with green shutters, a haven from the Beltway bustle.

Joe and his wife Jill -- in an elegant green and blue dress -- greeted Brian and Mary Cowen as they arrived at 8.30am.

The Taoiseach had not come empty-handed, and immediately set about pinning sprigs of shamrock to the lapel of the vice-president -- who has far closer Irish roots through his late mother, Jean Finnegan Biden, who died in January.

After a good feed of omelettes and chicken apple sausages, it was off to the White House for a 40-minute face-to-face with the president.

On their first meeting last year the pair hit it off famously, and it was clear by the relaxed mood as they chatted in the Oval Office that this relationship had survived what has been a rocky 12 months for both leaders.

Mr Obama was a little more low-key this year, a little thinner too, with flecks of gray in his tightly-cropped hair. Last year he was still bathed in the rosy glow of his historic election.

Now he's deep in the trenches of legislative warfare in a country still fighting to break free of recession and still sending troops into Iraq and Afghanistan. No wonder he looked a little weary.

But despite -- or perhaps because of -- all this, there is still time to nurture the Irish-American vote.

"Thirty-six million Americans claim Irish ancestry, and I'm sure more do on St Patrick's Day," said Mr Obama to the press pack who were gathered around him in the beautiful, yellow-hued and sun-dappled oval room.

"It's a testament to how close our two countries are that America has been shaped culturally, politically, economically by the incredible contribution of Irish-Americans."

And there was an incredible contribution by RTE's Charlie Bird, who swooped in with an unscheduled question about whether the president would grace Irish shores.

"I would love to come to Ireland," he told Charlie, much to the Taoiseach's bemusement. Honestly, you can't take the Irish anywhere, not even to the Oval Office.

After the meeting, the Taoiseach practically skipped out of the White House and over to the media. "It was a great meeting, a wonderful day," he said happily.

Brian explained that they had discussed the economic situation and also the North, and the president had heaped praise on Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin for his recent heroic efforts to solve the impasse over devolution and policing.

Even our Taoiseach was a bit star-struck by such close and prolonged exposure to the charismatic Barack Obama. "He's a very personable, warm individual, and we're very grateful for the access that we can get to meet the president," he said.

But would he get the chance to worship Barack from near as opposed to afar? Had he asked him (again) to drop into Ireland for a longer stay than the six times he's touched down at Shannon for refuelling en route to elsewhere?

Brian looked bashful. He hadn't wanted to make a nuisance of himself.

"I made it clear to the president again, rather than continuing with a sequential invitation, that there is a standing invitation for him to visit my constituency at any time -- and coming to the country will be a nice consequence as well," he laughed.

And at the lunch hosted by the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama heaped praise on the influence of the Irish on his country, describing St Patrick's Day as "a day to thank the Irish people for all they have done for America; few nations so small have had such an enormous impact on another".

"They came to our shores in waves, by choice as well as by necessity, building lives even as they were building a new nation, enriching our heritage, enriching our culture in their own way.

"But the truth is, they weren't always welcome," he added.

"There were times when the Irish were caricatured, stereotyped, blamed for society's ills. So naturally it was a good fit for them to go into politics," he deadpanned to laughter.

And so the day ended with an evening hooley in the White House for Brian and Mary, hosted by the Obamas.

Among the guests were golfer Padraig Harrington and hotelier John Fitzpatrick, who had been honoured earlier in the week as Irish-American of the Year and Ryan Tubridy and his girlfriend Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain.

The serious business of the day was over, and Brian was able to joke to the president that it was "amazing how many O'Haras, O'Sullivans and O'Neills are frantically searching to see if they are in any way linked to the O'Bamas".

It's amazing, really. The previous evening at a gala Irish-American event, entertainment was provided by Irish dancing Hispanic and African-American kids called Keltic Dream.

At the same event, Secretary of State and former First Lady Hillary Clinton had told a story about how during a stopover at Shannon, Chelsea had persuaded security to let her off Airforce One to fill a bottle with some Irish soil. "She's kept it ever since," said Hillary.

Ireland may be down on the canvas, but we've still some good people in our corner. We're not out for the count, not yet.

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