This blog series focuses on U.S.- Irish relations at St. Patrick’s Day over the past 100 years. Since this is the centennial of the Easter Rising, I’m looking at 1916 and each 25 years afterward: 1941, 1966 and 1991. I’m also writing a post on St. Patrick’s Day 1976, the year of the American bicentennial.
Part 3: The Rising’s 50th anniversary & the bowl of shamrocks
The tradition of an Irish government official visiting the White House at St. Patrick’s Day to deliver shamrocks dates to 1952. President Harry Truman was out of town when Irish Ambassador John Joseph Hearne paid the call.
During the Eisenhower years, “the ceremony’s prominence waxed and waned,” according to this 2010 CNN story, “but the shamrock presentation became a full-blown media event when John F. Kennedy, himself an Irish-American, entered the White House.”
Less than three years after Kennedy’s triumphant return to Ireland and his assassination six months later, Lyndon B. Johnson was the U.S. president. According to president’s daily diary for March 17, 1966, LBJ received Ambassador of Ireland H.E. William Fay and Mrs. Fay in the Oval Office shortly after noon.
The president was presented with “fresh shamrocks [redacted] flown in from Ireland. The shamrocks were presented in a large (about 18 inches tall) Waterford crystal vase. The Ambassador and his wife also left the President a book of Irish art for Mrs. Johnson.
It appears that two words are redacted between “shamrocks” and “flown.” My guess: “and whiskey.”
Earlier that St. Patrick’s Day, officials at the British Embassy discovered their gateposts and two plaster lions on a parapet in front of the building had been painted green. The Washington Post reported: “Painted in black letters upon the chests of the seated two-foot-high lions were the fighting words: ‘Up the rebels.’ ”
But the story does not mention the 50th anniversary of the Rising.
The Post’s St. Patrick’s Day roundup also reported that a small park at 24th Street and Massachusetts Avenue near the Irish Embassy would soon become the new home for a 7-foot-tall bronze statue of Robert Emmet. The statue of the early 19th century leader in the fight for independence was commissioned in 1917, the year after the Rising. It had been display the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History, but recently put into storage. An April story notes the statue and park were dedicated for “the 50th anniversary of Irish independence.”
The presidential diary for St. Patrick’s Day shows that Johnson left the Oval Office shortly before 8 p.m., telling aides he was returning to the private residence to change shirts “because I’m going to help the Irish celebrate.”
He was driven to the Statler Hilton Hotel a few blocks from the White House to visit the Washington Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick’s annual dinner. Chapter President Rev. C. Leslie Glenn of the Washington Cathedral draped an honorary membership medal with green ribbons around the president’s neck. Only Presidents George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt had received similar honorary membership, according to the diary notes.
“The president then walked the length of the head table and shook hands with those sitting there,” the diary says. He gave remarks, but the diary does not indicate what he said.
Johnson returned to the Oval Office about 30 minutes later.