Three leading Irish musicians said they turned down offers to perform at the White House St. Patrick’s Day celebration Thursday because they are opposed to President Trump’s stance on immigration and his proposed budget cuts to arts programs.
“I just can’t bring myself to do it,” said Billy McComiskey, who was born in the United States after his father immigrated to New York from Northern Ireland. “My father would be disgusted with me if I supported this administration in any way.”
Instead of playing the Irish accordion for Trump, McComiskey — and two other acclaimed musicians, Laura Byrne and Donna Long — entertained students at Howard Community College in Maryland.
The musicians said the Culkin School of Traditional Irish Dance asked them to accompany their dancers at the White House event; the dancers did perform. A White House official said the White House invited the Culkin School to provide entertainment and “they graciously agreed.” It was up to Culkin to choose the musiciansto accompany the young dancers.
“I felt like I would be a hypocrite,” said Byrne, who plays the Irish flute and tin whistle. She said she always wanted to perform at the White House, but felt she couldn’t, especially after Trump on Thursday proposed cutting funding to the National Endowment for the Arts and other cultural programs.
At the Friends of Ireland Luncheon on Capitol Hill, Trump praised Irish immigrants.
“We’re here today to celebrate America’s commitment to Ireland and the tremendous contributions, and I know it well, the Irish immigrants and their descendants have made right here in the United States and throughout the world,” Trump said.
Trump has surrounded himself with Irish Americans, including Vice President Mike Pence, spokesman Sean Spicer, and adviser Stephen K. Bannon. Many in the diverse Irish American community — estimated to include nearly 34 million people — support the Republican president.
But millions of others are fiercely opposed to him, making this St. Patrick’s Day like no other, said Niall O’Dowd, publisher of the Irish Voice newspaper and Irish America magazine.
Normally, St. Patrick’s Day is a lighthearted day “full of flattery” between Dublin and Washington. But O’Dowd said “this year has a different feel to it. I have never seen tension like now.”
Enda Kenny — Ireland’s prime minister, who met with Trump at the annual White House reception that the musicians boycotted — was under pressure from home to bring up the issue of undocumented Irish people in the United States. Trump’s hard line stance on immigration and his attempts at a travel ban have been deeply unpopular in Ireland. More than 39,000 people signed an online petition that said if Kenny went ahead with his trip to meet Trump, “he is not traveling in my name.”
Kenny himself was in an unusually awkward position because of his own words. During the U.S. presidential campaign, Kenny criticized Trump for his “racist and dangerous” language. Asked about this before his meeting with Trump, Kenny tried to walk that back.
“The language that was used [by Mr. Trump] on that occasion was in my view not that language that I would use but it was not related to his personality,” according to the Irish Times
The situation is so tense for Irish musicians, Byrne said, that some are opting “not to play together because of how they voted. There is a bit of a divide, yes.”