“Everything between us runs deep – the literature, the poetry, the sadness, the joy, but above all our resilience,” Biden told more than 800 guests at the National Building Museum. “Despite everything, we never stopped being dreamers. And I think we Irish people are the only ones in the world who are nostalgic for the future.
It’s the present that’s the problem: Micheál Martin, Taoiseach of Ireland, abruptly left dinner after learning he had tested positive for coronavirus. Martin, whose title means Prime Minister and who was visiting Washington for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, tested negative earlier in the day after a member of his delegation came down with the virus. As a precaution, Martin did a second test; that result came back positive and he escaped after spending some time at the event, where he sat next to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and briefly interacted with Biden (although the president was not considered a close contact, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines).
The Irish government released a statement on Thursday saying Martin was feeling well and self-isolating. A breakfast planned this morning with Martin and Vice President Harris canceled because second gentleman Doug Emhoff tested positive for coronavirus; today’s White House cloverleaf exchange between Martin and Biden was held virtually.
For the past three decades, the nonpartisan gala has attracted political and business elites: this year’s guest list included British and Irish Ambassadors to the United States, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, retired Senators Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), two dozen other members of Congress and, for an observation celebrity random, legendary singer-songwriter Carole King. Masks were required unless guests were eating or drinking – which basically means that after two years of isolation and fear, hundreds of people went maskless for most of the night.
“Everyone is so happy to be out,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), wearing a green dress, green glasses, green watch and green face mask. “It feels so good to see people. It’s so good to connect. But 10 of my friends in Congress have tested positive in the past few days. The problem is people are done with covid, but the covid is not done with us.
It was at this annual event two years ago that the enormity of the coronavirus crisis hit the nation’s capital. Earlier in the day on March 11, 2020, Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the House Oversight and Reform Committee that the outbreak – at that time focused on the west coast – was going to get worse. Shortly after, the World Health Organization officially declared covid-19 a pandemic. The stock market took a nosedive.
“This event was really the last major official event in Washington,” said former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, one of about a hundred not socially distanced at the VIP reception on Wednesday. “People were worried, but they decided to go ahead. Now it feels like we’re back to normal. People are very excited, and you know the Irish — it’s hard to separate us. It’s like a big happy family.
Wednesday’s sold-out fundraiser – which raised more than $1 million for Irish charities – was a throwback to that heady mix of politics and philanthropy that Washington does so well. The organization announced a $250,000 emergency grant for Irish humanitarian organizations helping Ukrainian refugees in Ireland.
But at heart, the gala is a celebration of the ties between America and Ireland, with a particular focus on immigration and the American dream. The presence of Biden – the first president to attend the dinner since Bill Clinton – underscored how he has always relied on his Irish heritage as a source of personal pride and public narrative, and was honored at this gala in as vice-president in 2014.
He was greeted with an extended standing ovation on Wednesday as he took the stage, then chronicled his Irish roots, which come from his mother, Catherine Eugenia Finnegan. “I inherited overwhelming pride in family from my mother’s side – an overwhelming pride in being Irish – a pride that spoke to the hearts and souls of both continents, and tapped into the old and the new. “, he told the crowd.
Both sides of his mother’s family immigrated to the United States and ended up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, according to a genealogy commissioned by Biden when he was vice president. In 2013 he was inducted into the Irish American Hall of Fame, and three years later three generations of Bidens traveled to Ireland to see his family’s ancestral sites, making headlines everywhere they went. . The story of the Finnegans — hard-working immigrants seeking a better life — is the basis of Biden’s story.
On Wednesday, he marveled that the descendant of an Irish shoemaker could become president of the United States. “This is America,” he said to applause. “Or as my grandfather Ambrose Finnegan would say, ‘That’s the Irishman of it.'”
There was more talk, as there always is, and food and drink and good cheer. The night was both a blast from the past and a hope for the future. It was, for lack of a better word, normal – or the best Washington could do at the moment.