The Washington Post

Politicians and St. Patrick’s Day: Perfect together

St. Patrick's Day has become an all-consuming holiday in the United States, with parades and parties that extend entire weekends, and much eating of cabbage. March 17 has also played an important role in U.S. politics throughout history. Here are a few examples, including ones from this year:

Gov. Deval Patrick, right, waves after speaking at the annual St. Patrick's Day Breakfast in Boston, Sunday, March 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)


There are many annual St. Patrick's Day parades in the United States, but the one in New York City is the oldest, and perhaps the most magnetized to politics.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy visited the annual New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade up Fifth Avenue two years before his assassination.

Matrons happily called "Senator, Senator," workmen shouted "Hi, Bobby," and teen-aged girls shrieked and squealed. At least two girls broke out of the crowd to kiss him. One wore a large "Kiss me, I'm Irish" button, the other a button reading "Kiss me, I'm Italian."

The senator said he "greatly enjoyed it."

During his 1980 presidential bid, Senator Ted Kennedy — called the "king of Irish America" by the Economist — campaigned at Chicago's St. Patrick's Day Parade. He handed out pamphlets covered with shamrocks, which did not turn out to be incredibly lucky as far as presidential ambitions are concerned.

In 1983, the New York City parade looked decidedly Italian. Many of the city's prominent Irish-Americans decided to boycott because the parade's grand marshall Michael Flannery was planning to turn his high-profile gig into a "demonstration of support for the Provisional wing of the Irish Republican Army." The biggest political names at the event, as a result, were Gov. Mario Cuomo, Senator Alfonse D'Amato, Representative Mario Biaggi and Mayor Edward Koch.

Recently, St. Patrick's Day parades have been condemned for political reasons. In 1993, Mayor David Dinkins boycotted the New York City parade because the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization was banned from taking part. 

Around the same time, courts in Boston said their parade organizers needed to let gay and lesbian groups march. They received a hostile reception, and in 1994 the parade organizers chose to cancel the event instead of making it inclusive. The following year, the Supreme Court said the privately organized parade — which relies on hundreds of thousands of taxpayer money to function smoothly — could exclude any groups it wants. LGBT groups haven't taken part in the parade since.

This year, Maureen Dahill, who is running for state senate, said to David Bernstein, "The parade does not reflect the inclusive place that South Boston is now." Boston Mayor Marty Walsh won't be marching. Gov. Deval Patrick has never marched in the parade. The parade in South Boston will have a diversity float this year, however. Randy Foster, one of the float's builders told the Boston Globe, “The only way for this to work was to keep quiet. We had to wait it out and prove what we said when we first started, that we’re not here to make a big statement. We all thought, if we just show up on parade day and we march and have a cool float, people will understand.”

Yesterday, State Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry’s became the first woman and first Haitian-American to host Boston's St. Patrick's Day breakfast.

Bill de Blasio became the second city mayor not to take part in the New York City parade this year, too, also because of the group's exclusion of LGBT groups.

“I simply disagree with the organizers of that parade in their exclusion of some individuals in this city,” he said. He planned to take part in other celebratory events this week, however. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's former press secretary joked“The real question is -- will he drink his Guinness through a straw, or with a spoon?” Guinness announced that they would not sponsor the New York City parade this year because of its exclusion of LGBT groups

St. Patrick's Day parades have always been slow to pick up cues on social issues. Women weren't allowed to march until 1917, when they were conscripted to replace the many Irish men sent off to battle in World War I.

Hot Springs, Ark., has hosted the shortest St. Patrick's Day parade, a 98-ft crawl along Bridge Street, for the past 11 years.

Last year, Bo Derek and John Corbett were the grand marshals in Hot Springs; other participants include the International Order of Irish Elvi — “50 to 100 Elvis Presleys, it’s hard to count them,” Mr. Arrison said — and a tribute to Michael Flatley, the original star of the “Riverdance” stage show, who went on to mount his own, “Lord of the Dance.”

“We have Lord Fatley and the Lards of Dance,” Mr. Arrison said.

Also: Irish belly dancers, a rarity. “Real belly dancers, to Irish music. It’s not Roseanne Barr in a belly dancer suit,” Mr. Arrison said.

An Irish pub in the Bronx is trying to fight them for the title.

Politicians undergo short-term name changes

When March 17 arrives, many politicians have temporary name makeovers to fit in with the Irish they're celebrating.

At the 1984 New York City parade, "The legions of politicians were led by Mayor Koch, who wore an Irish fisherman's sweater, a plaid beret and a shamrock tie and proclaimed himself O'Koch." Several Washington Post articles from the 80s mention an "O'Reagan," and his family thinks their Irish lineage might go back to an O'Regan.

However, Reagan's Irish roots didn't stop Irish-Americans from getting upset when Illinois tried to replace the state's  statue of Gen. James Shields at the U.S. Capitol with the more popular Illinois-born former president. Shields challenged Abraham Lincoln to a duel in 1842, convinced that the future president was behind the nasty newspaper articles in Springfield casting aspersions on his character.

Lincoln not only accepted, but chose the weapons, broadswords, which he brought to the agreed site, an island in the Mississippi River, Callan said. Happily, no duel took place, the varying accounts reading very much like a ridiculous bar fight.

The Shields statue still stands in the Capitol.

During the 2012 campaign, Barack Obama sold green shirts that said "O'bama" on the front. He has ancestors from Ireland,  and visited the town they came from in 2011, where he told locals, "My name is Barack Obama, of the Moneygall Obamas, and I've come home to find the apostrophe we lost somewhere along the way."

Irish-Catholic Vice President Joe Biden has been called O'Biden from time to time.

The St. Patrick's Day Lunch

Every year, the president heads to the Capitol for a convivial lunch with lawmakers in the name of St. Patrick.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan told Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O'Neil many an Irish joke. In fact, he told Irish jokes at nearly every St. Patrick's Day lunch he presided over. Example:

"One day, Bridget is with here children, all of them out of control, and she was givin them hell.

"From behind appears an archangel.

"'Now, I ask you, would Mary our Blessed Queen have every spoken like that?' To which Bridget responded:

"'Ah Mary, and her ONE?"'

In 1994, Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds — who wore many shamrocks on his lapel — gave President Bill Clinton "a large crystal bowl overflowing with shamrocks," a longstanding tradition for president-visiting Irish prime ministers (although in 2009, Prime Minister Brian Cowen also gave Barack Obama a CD titled, "There's No One as Irish as Barack Obama).

Clinton wore a green tie for the visit. The prime minister was in town to discuss the Irish Revolutionary Army and plans for peace, a plan that wasn't realized until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Irish officials, from the government and the IRA, also made many a St. Patrick's Day visit to the Clinton White House over the course of his presidency.

Politicians typically stay away from ethnic jokes of any kind, except Irish jokes. In the spirit of St. Patrick's Day, here are some of their best. (JulieAnn McKellogg/The Washington Post)
Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.

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