Mr President and First Lady, Senators, Representatives, Ladies and Gentlemen
As we gather this year to mark St Patrick’s Day, an annual occasion that means so much to so many Americans and to Irish people everywhere, we do so in the consciousness that these are not normal times.
We are reminded by the appalling events in Ukraine that freedom and democracy can never be taken for granted – each generation must be ready to stand up and defend them.
We are reminded also of the lengths that those who oppose democracy are prepared to go to, to stop others enjoying its benefits.
In the people of Ukraine, we are reminded of the boundless bravery and resolve of those who love their country and who value its freedom.
And, importantly, we are reminded of the importance of the shared values and principles, which are the bedrock of the enduring friendship between our countries.
As we confront this crisis, I am reminded of the words James Joyce put into the mouth of his 20th century Everyman, Leopold Bloom, in Ulysses, published a century ago this year by an American woman in Paris, Sylvia Beach. Joyce wrote:
Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.
That is why we stand together. To ensure that what Joyce described as ‘perpetuating national hatred among nations’ shall not prevail in our time.
This ceremony has a long history. And yet it has perhaps never meant as much to us as it does this year. That is because more than any other President of our times, your family story captures the overlapping stories of Ireland and America.
The shamrock presented to you today recalls the lives of the Blewitts of County Mayo and the Finnegans from County Louth.
I took the opportunity to have the bowl inscribed especially for you in the Irish language – knowing how you would value that.
Your family’s perilous journeys across the Atlantic, and those of the other Irish names that adorn your family tree, reflect the experience of the millions of Irish people who left their homeland in the 19th century to seek better lives for themselves.
The departure of so many people from our shores, many at a very young age, left a huge gap in our society and deposited oceans of pain in the hearts of those they left behind, longing for departed family members they never saw again.
In more recent times, our diaspora has been an inestimable source of strength to us in the search and achievement of peace and political progress in Northern Ireland.
Mr President, I salute the immense contribution made by the Congressional Friends of Ireland of which you were a founding member back in 1981.
Their efforts were instrumental in securing indispensable American support for the peace process that culminated in the Good Friday Agreement, an achievement in which I know that you and many other Americans take justifiable pride.
Your support, Mr President, and that of our friends in Congress continues to be of vital importance as we seek to protect Good Friday Agreement from the complications created by the British decision to leave the European Union.
The United States will always be an influential source of support for the cause of peace and reconciliation in Ireland, something for which we are deeply appreciative.
Mr President, your family’s experience is not just woven into the story of Ireland and its emigrants. It is also an integral part of the American story.
Your Irish ancestors, and millions of others from Ireland and around the world, strove in their lives to make America the country it is today.
Their labour in many cases literally built America. Theirs was no easy street. As the Irish poet, Eavan Boland, once wrote:
They would have thrived on our necessities.
What they survived we could not even live.
Their hardships parcelled in them.
And all the old songs. And nothing to lose.
Irish Americans rose to occupy prominent positions in every walk of American life, including today in this White House designed by an Irish architect, James Hoban.
Your country was transformed in the fifty years after the civil war at a time when immigration, including from Ireland, was at its peak.
For them, and countless others like them, America became what Seamus Heaney calls the ‘farther shore’ where
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.