Why Is the Irish Prime Minister About to Give Obama Some Shamrocks?

The 60-year tradition that made St. Patrick's Day what it is today.

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny and President Obama during the St. Patrick's Day reception at the White House in 2013. (National Journal)

St. Patrick's Day is a time for tradition. People in green wigs pour a glass to Irish heritage, whether they're Irish or not. Chicago dyes its river green, a brighter shade than its usual murk. And the prime minister of Ireland travels to the United States to give the president a bowl of shamrocks.

Many of these traditions have their own bizarre histories, but it's the last one — to be continued tonight at the White House — that had an unlikely beginning, starting in 1952 during President Truman's time in office.

Relations between Ireland and the U.S. have not always been as cordial as they are now. Ireland took a neutral stance during World War II, joining neither the Allies nor the Axis. This position delayed Irish entry into the United Nations until December 1955.

In an attempt to mend ties, then-Irish Ambassador John Hearne dropped off a box of shamrocks at the White House on St. Patrick's Day while Truman was vacationing in Key West. The following year, Hearne was invited back to the White House to deliver a bowl of shamrocks to President Eisenhower personally.

The Irish prime minister, known as the Taoiseach (pronounced "tea-shook"), first delivered the shamrocks to the president in 1956, officially making the event an annual tradition. Though sometimes an ambassador would deliver the gift, every prime minister since has met with the president at least once. President Clinton set the precedent of meeting only with the prime minister.

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The event has always held political significance. In the beginning, it was to show that Ireland aligned itself politically with the West during the Cold War. When President Kennedy, an Irish-American, came to office, it became an even larger spectacle. Kennedy, in fact, traveled to Ireland and addressed the parliament there in 1963. During the Nixon years, the ritual gained importance again because of the conflict in Northern Ireland, and it has continued ever since.

The shamrock, a three-leafed clover, is the unofficial symbol of Ireland. St. Patrick is said to have used it to explain the Holy Trinity of Christianity to the pagan kings of Ireland in the Fifth Century. People in Ireland wore the shamrock to commemorate the country's conversion to Christianity — a tradition that immigrants brought to the U.S.

The bowl the prime minister presents to the president is made of either silver or cut glass, "symbolizing the ongoing tradition of craftsmanship, skill, and attention to detail," said Irish Embassy spokesman Ralph Victory.

Friday night, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny will continue that tradition at a White House reception with President Obama. It's this annual gift of shamrocks to the U.S. president, many argue, that has made St. Patrick's Day a mainstream holiday celebrated not just by the Irish. Before, small communities celebrated the holiday across the U.S., primarily in larger cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago.

So, this weekend, when you're drinking green beer, raise a toast to Ambassador Hearne. You may not have had that leprechaun hat if he hadn't dropped off the shamrocks in the first place.