President Barack Obama’s decision to visit Ireland was both personal and political, in my view.
Watching President Mary McAleese and her husband, Martin, greet President Barack Obama and his lovely wife, Michelle, at Aras an Uachtarain, I was filled with an enormous sense of pride.
Having been born into a Boston Irish political family, with strong roots in the west of Ireland, and having spent most of my adult life in my ancestral country, the Obama visit holds a special resonance for me.
Personally, the President doubtlessly has a lingering curiosity about his roots, which is, in a way, unique, given his background and somewhat nomadic upbringing.
But it is a curiosity that is also uniformly American in that, excepting Native Americans, our origins are elsewhere and most of us are keen to know from whence we hail.
The images from Moneygall reveal a very real and reciprocal outpouring of affection and are proof positive that President Obama’s homecoming was a personal triumph.
From another perspective, images of the trip, which have been broadcast around the globe, are the equivalent of political gold dust for the President.
After recently proving that he was indeed born in the United States, President Obama celebrated his Irish heritage on the trip.
This will further endear him to many of his supporters and will further “Americanise” him in the eyes of even the most sceptical onlookers.
After all, the Irish are America’s favourite Europeans and Ireland is a place where “real Americans” have roots.
Consequently, the visit should help President Obama achieve buy-in with ethnic Catholic voters and with “middle America.”
In the past, he has made uncharacteristic missteps and appeared uncomfortable in his engagement with these two important groupings in the American electorate which are both difficult to readily identify and quantify.
His visit to Ireland is likely to improve his standing with each grouping and, therefore, should be regarded a political triumph.
The politics of the Irish America of which I am a product, however, are more complicated.
While President Obama’s visit to Ireland was definitely intended to score political points with wide swathes of American voters, not just the 40 million who claim Irish descent, it is no mistake that he repeatedly trumpets his Irish roots.
He also celebrates St. Patrick’s Day with gusto, and was only too delighted to accept Ambassador Dan Rooney’s entreaties to visit Ireland and chose to make the sole substantive public address of his European tour in Dublin.
And that is because Irish America remains an important segment of the electorate. Irish America is not as influential as some other identity or issue oriented lobbies, nor is it monolithic or homogenous. Some commentators, like Trina Vargo of the US-Ireland Alliance and journalist Niall Stanage, continually reference these truths and argue that Irish America is dead as a political entity.
Yet the visits of America’s recent presidents to Ireland, a tiny island on Europe’s western fringe with no strategic importance whatsoever, and the outreach of American politicians on March 17 and when they seek re-election indicate that Irish America is not dead politically.
The political vibrancy of Irish America is the legacy of the Kennedys of course, but also, I like to think, of emigrant families like my own who’ve entered public service as proud Americans, but who’ve never forgotten where they come from.
President Obama’s visit “home” was a personal and political triumph for all of us.
In the end, May 23, 2011 was a great day for Ireland and the United States.
I have never been prouder to call myself a son of both.
Larry Donnelly is a Boston-born lawyer and nephew of the former Democrat Congressman Brian Donnelly. He has resided in Ireland since 2001 and is Legal Counsel to Democrats Abroad Ireland.