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St Patrick's Day

How did the White House shamrock event first start?

In pictures: Shamrock sessions at the White House.

THE ST PATRICK’S Day tradition of presenting Irish shamrock to the White House started back in 1952 during President Harry Truman’s time in office. Taoiseach Enda Kenny didn’t present the bowl of shamrock to President Barack Obama today as he is in Chicago. He will, however, fit in the presentation before he heads back to Ireland in the next few days.

But harking back to that first occasion – it wasn’t the photo opportunity it’s taken for nowadays: Truman was not actually in Washington at the time and the then-Irish ambassador John Joseph Hearne simply dropped a box of shamrock off at the White House.

Dr Michael Kennedy, executive editor of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy (DIFP), says that Hearne’s actions were influenced by a desire to strengthen Ireland’s damaged relations with the US following WWII and the Irish government’s policy of neutrality.

“Hearne was rather go-ahead for an ambassador at the time. Others tended to just get involved in Irish communities and their politics, but St Patrick’s Day was one way for Hearne to improve Irish-American relations which were really in bad shape after the war,” Kennedy told

“Anglo-Irish relations had improved by early 1946, but there was a US diplomat in Dublin at the time who had no time for the De Valera administration. His reports filtered back to Washington through the State Department and there was a lot of anti-Irish opinion in that department. Hearne wanted to make a pitch to the White House that would bypass the State Department.”

Ever since, the tradition of bringing Irish shamrock to the White House has offered Irish politicians an opportunity to have a few minutes in person with the US president – an opportunity that would otherwise be unavailable to a country the size of Ireland:

You couldn’t do it if you were Belize or Luxembourg; you don’t ring up and get added to the president’s diary. It allows us via our ambassador or the Taoisech to get direct contact and get a message across, whether it’s that Ireland is a good destination to visit or to do business in. And you also have the opportunity to invite the president over to Ireland.

Hearne’s gesture also led to St Patrick’s Day being celebrated by a much wider demographic in the US than before.

Previously, the saint’s day was celebrated by small Irish communities and groups. Kennedy says that the White House visit helped to modernise the holiday. “Instead of a small ethnic gathering or a primarily New York-based event,” he said. “St Patrick’s Day became something much more important because of the White House element. It’s going to get on the front page of newspapers and in the White House list of ceremonies.”

In pictures: Shamrock sessions at the White House:

How did the White House shamrock event first start?
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  • 1941

    Though this does not capture a presidential shamrock reception event, this St Patrick's Day 1941 photo shows President Franklin D Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor looking at two wedding anniversary gifts: a potted shamrock plant and an Irish potato. It was their 36th anniversary of their wedding. We think Mrs Roosevelt's face says it all, really. (AP Photo/PA Images)
  • 1961

    Ambassador Thomas Kiernan of Ireland presents a bowl of Irish shamrock to President John F Kennedy in 1961. Although you can't tell from this image, Kennedy wore a green tie for the occasion - one he borrowed from his appointments secretary Kenneth O'Donnell. (AP Photo/Harvey Georges/PA Images)
  • 2006

    Taoiseach Bertie Ahern seems to have surprise President George W Bush with this bowl of shamrocks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on St Patrick's Day in 2006. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak/PA Images)
  • 2007

    Together again: Bush accepts a given crystal bowl of shamrock from Bertie in 2007. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/PA Images)
  • 2008

    Bush and Bertie have gotten into the swing of things by their third shamrock exchange on St Patrick's Day, 2008. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, PA File)
  • 2009

    On his first St Patrick's Day in office, President Barack Obama receives shamrock from Taoiseach Brian Cowen at the White House. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert/PA Images)
  • 2010

    And on his last St Patrick's Day in office, Cowen headed back to the White House with the traditional bowl of shamrock. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon/PA Images)
  • 2011

    Shortly after his election as Taoiseach last year, Enda Kenny travelled over to Washington for his first White House shamrock session. (AP Photo/PA Images)
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