Update: The tradition continued in 2011 as new Prime Minister Enda Kenny made his first official trip to Washington for St. Patrick's Day.
On Wednesday -- St. Patrick's Day, a Catholic holiday celebrating the patron saint of Ireland -- Prime Minister Brian Cowen will not be in Dublin or Cork. Like many a taoiseach before him, Cowen will be in Washington with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden, presenting a bowl of shamrocks to the president before an event with Irish-Americans and political dignitaries. But why don't Irish prime ministers spend St. Paddy's Day at home?
It is a tradition, though not a particularly old one. Since the mid-20th century, U.S. presidents have sent warm words to Ireland on St. Patrick's Day. In 1937, for instance, Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a radio broadcast from Warm Springs, Georgia, in honor of the holiday: "Good old St. Patrick, and may he ever be with us, was the epitome of unselfishness!" And in 1969, Richard Nixon welcomed the ambassador from Ireland into the White House and received the now-traditional Waterford crystal bowl filled with clover.
Then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Troubles escalated in Northern Ireland, which shares a border with the Republic of Ireland and is part of the United Kingdom. Irish leaders started reaching out to political heavyweights in the United States, continuing to send the shamrocks and also stepping up the diplomatic visits. On St. Patrick's Day, 1976, for instance, Prime Minister Liam Cosgrave addressed a joint session of Congress to push for peace before heading to the White House. Five years after that, during Irish Republican Army (IRA) member Bobby Sands' famed 66-day hunger strike, Ronald Reagan became the first U.S. president ever to visit the Irish Embassy as the guest of honor at a St. Patrick's Day lunch and a negotiator seeking peace between the warring nationalist and loyalist factions.
The taoiseach's White House visit on St. Patrick's Day became a permanent fixture during the tenure of Bill Clinton, for whom peace talks were a major foreign-policy priority. He used the glitzy events as a chance to bring both sides together: In 1995, he famously got the Irish nationalist Gerry Adams and Ulster loyalist leader Gary McMichael (whose father died at the hands of the IRA) in the same room, along with Republic of Ireland Prime Minister John Bruton. Doing so helped pave the way to the 1998 peace agreement. During Clinton's presidency as well, the term "shamrock ceremony" came into use in the United States.
Now, Irish prime ministers continue to accept the White House's St. Patrick's Day invitation because, in the words of the Irish Times, it's a rare occasion when "the leader of the most powerful nation on earth will devote much of his working day to one of the smallest countries in Europe" -- face time very few tiny countries get.
The St. Patrick's Day visits from Irish dignitaries and politicians also serve an apolitical purpose: fundraising and economic development. The Ireland Funds and other major Irish lobbying, charitable, and business organizations draw in more money and attention in the middle of March than in the rest of the year -- not just due to the Irish-themed revelry, but due to the visits from Irish political heavyweights.
Thanks to the U.S. Embassy in Dublin and Henry Farrell of George Washington University.