There were just a handful of Bostonians on hand on Tuesday night in the East Room of the White House, as President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill hosted a St. Patrick's evening reception for the political leadership of Ireland.
This Dorchester kid had the privilege of being among the 300 or so invitees there to witness Obama's first March 17th in the White House. The president introduced Ireland's prime minister - or Taoiseach - Brian Cowen and acknowledged First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Northern Ireland as "two men who have stood together to chart a historic path towards peace." I positioned myself in the front of the gathering as Biden and the president spoke from a raised stage at the front of the room.
Among the locals in attendance, we saw members of Congress, including Stephen Lynch and Ed Markey, John Cullinane and Mike Quinlin, and Biden PR guru Larry Rasky. But if the room was filled with Irish, we Boston Irish were far outnumbered.
The Boston crew did make themselves known when Biden said, "We all know the importance of St. Paddy's Day in Irish history, but today is a pretty significant day in American history, as well. It was on March 17, 1776, that British forces, under the leadership of Sir William Howe, evacuated Boston during the Revolutionary War -(applause) - something we Irish and Americans share in common, paving the way for the future victory in the Revolutionary War."
When the president took the microphone, he said, "Well, good evening, everybody. And welcome to St. Patrick's Day at the White House. (Applause.) I notice that the Boston crowd is a little rambunctious tonight. (Applause.) How about Chicago? (Applause.) That's what I'm talking about. (Laughter.)"
The president - who can trace a line of his own lineage back to Ireland's County Offaly - was presented with a gift of shamrocks earlier in the day by Cowen, who himself hails from Offaly.
In his remarks, the president sent a clear message that the bonds of friendship between our two countries will be well-cared for on his watch. And he also made it clear that the recent uptick of political terror in the North - evidently by a breakaway group of the IRA - will not be allowed to take hold.
"All of us have watched this week as the people of Northern Ireland and their leaders have responded nothing short of heroically to those who would challenge a hard-earned peace, and the thoughts and prayers of Americans everywhere are &endash; go out to the families of the fallen. And I want everyone listening to know this: The United States of America will always stand with those who are working towards peace, and after seeing former adversaries mourning and praying and working together, I have never been more confident that this peace will prevail," Obama said.
The president struck just the right chord in his remarks, reminding us of the unique place this religious feast day holds in the American imagination.
"For generations, the Irish, along with so many other immigrant and ethnic groups, came to America equipped often with nothing but their faith and an unbending belief that success was possible for all who were willing to work for it. That, after all, may be the reason that Americans identify so strongly with the story of St. Patrick. It's the story of believing in the unseen - and of making that belief a reality.
"That's what the Irish did. They struggled to create a place for themselves in a distant land, and with a commitment to faith and family and hard work, they transformed that land in the process. And even after all the generations of becoming and being Americans, their descendants have never lost that enduring spirit that insists they proclaim themselves Irish still.
"And tonight, in this room with all of you, I'm reminded of the words of my favorite poet, Yeats: 'There are no strangers here - only friends you haven't met yet.' "
It was a dream of an evening, to walk into the White House as a guest of the president and his wife, and to see the faces of many famous and near-famous government people. Most names I couldn't remember, but the faces were familiar.
After Brian Cowen delivered his remarks, the president and Mrs. Obama came to the edge of the stage, reaching down to shake hands with some of their guests. I had positioned myself at the front of the crowd: the president came right to me, reached out his hand and said "welcome."
"Our newspapers, the Boston Irish Reporter and the Dorchester Reporter, endorsed you back in January, 2008," I told him. "And I remember meeting you at UMass/Boston back in 2006, when you received the honorary degree."
"Yes, I remember that. Thanks for being here tonight," he said. Then I noticed that Mrs. Obama was nearby and suddenly she was extending her hand to me. Later, I learned that it was the First Lady who came up with the idea to dye the fountains on the White House's North and South lawns green, inspired by her hometown of Chicago, which marks the holiday by dyeing its river green.
"Thank you for sharing your wonderful family with us," I said to her. "Your two little girls are wonderful!"
"Thank you. Please remember us in your prayers," she said to me.