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Obama’s speech in Westminster Hall was heavy: but his big speech in Ireland was simply fraudulent

Obama’s crude bid for the Irish American vote deserves to fail

By on Thursday, 26 May 2011

President Obama drinks a Guinness in Hayes Bar in Moneygall, County Offaly, during his visit to Ireland (Photo: Press Association)

President Obama drinks a Guinness in Hayes Bar in Moneygall, County Offaly, during his visit to Ireland (Photo: Press Association)

What one has always to remember, in speeches delivered abroad by statesmen from any democratic country—but especially from America—is that for them their most important audience is back home. President Obama’s performance in the medieval splendours of Westminster Hall, it seems, didn’t go down all that well back in the US of A: his meeting with the Cambridges got more media attention. Certainly, his oratory has often been more compelling; after the jokiness and rabble-rousing of a lot of his speech in Ireland, he was going for gravitas and frankly he achieved it: he was at times so heavy that I nearly nodded off (Ken Clarke was actually snoring, though to be fair he often does that). There was a joke at the beginning: but that was it. The president was, frankly, a little pompous, and there was a high cliché rate. The inevitable contrast with the pope’s address in Westminster Hall vividly pointed the speech’s lack of substance.

There was another contrast: His very serious address could hardly have been more different from the speech he had addressed the day before not only to 25,000 people in College Green, Dublin but also to the 40 million voters back home who describe themselves as Irish American. Gravitas this wasn’t: it was first jokey then “inspirational”. It was quite a performance:

The President: Thank you! (Applause.) Hello, Dublin! (Applause.) Hello, Ireland! (Applause.) My name is Barack Obama—(applause) —of the Moneygall Obamas. (Applause.) And I’ve come home to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way. (Laughter and applause.)

Audience member: : I’ve got it here!

The President: Is that where it is? (Laughter.)

Some wise Irish man or woman once said that broken Irish is better than clever English. (Applause.) So here goes: Tá áthas orm bheith in Éirinn—I am happy to be in Ireland! (Applause.) I’m happy to be with so many á cairde. (Applause.)”

The most interesting part, for me, was the attempt to establish his own Irishness. It was an interesting exercise, which very carefully sidestepped the point about the “Irish” vote in America that he was so assiduously courting: that it is, essentially, at least tribally Catholic. No descendant of Irish protestants in America joins in those overblown St Patrick’s Day parades, or describes themselves as “Irish-American”.

So Obama was treading on potentially dangerous ground when he seemed to appropriate an Irishness of a kind that would actually induce (Catholic) Irish Americans to vote for him in large numbers. As one Irish blogger, Eoghan Harris, put it in an article amusingly entitled “Obama is literally a black protestant”:

“ ‘There’s no one as Irish as Barack Obama,’ says the song. Steve MacDonogh’s [book] Barack Obama—The Road from Moneygall proves that this is partly true—but only if you believe that the President’s Irish Protestant ancestors were as fully Irish as their Roman Catholic nationalist neighbours.

And the answer to that question is still problematical among sections of the Roman Catholic majority”.

So, the president sidestepped the tricky question of his Irish grandfather’s ecclesial affiliation:

“Earlier today Michelle and I visited Moneygall where we saw my ancestral home and dropped by the local pub. (Applause.) And we received a very warm welcome from all the people there, including my long-lost eighth cousin, Henry. (Laughter.) Henry now is affectionately known as Henry VIII. (Laughter.) And it was remarkable to see the small town where a young shoemaker named Falmouth Kearney, my great-great-great grandfather, my grandfather’s grandfather, lived his early life. And I was the shown the records from the parish recording his birth. And we saw the home where he lived.”

What he carefully didn’t mention was that those records were from the Church of Ireland (i.e. protestant) parish church. The crowd in College Green may or may not have realised that (I am told that most of them didn’t): and I wonder how many of those Irish American voters back home did. One thing is sure: the president won’t be going out of his way to enlighten them.

The tone got more serious, of course. The president became inspirational at some length, something he’s very good indeed at: he has the voice, the delivery, the power to seize an audience:

“When depression gripped America, Ireland sent tens of thousands of packages of shamrocks to cheer up its countrymen, saying, “May the message of Erin shamrocks bring joy to those away.

“And when an Iron Curtain fell across this continent and our way of life was challenged, it was our first Irish President—our first Catholic President, John F. Kennedy, who made us believe 50 years ago this week—(applause)—that mankind could do something big and bold and ambitious as walk on the moon. He made us dream again.

“That is the story of America and Ireland. That’s the tale of our brawn and our blood, side by side, in making and remaking a nation, pulling it westward, pulling it skyward, moving it forward again and again and again.”

As I say, he’s very good at this onward and upward “yes, we can” kind of thing (he even said it in Irish). Wilkie Collins said that the way to grip an audience was to “Make ’em laugh; make ’em cry; make ’em wait”, and nobody does it better. I was impressed. But I have to say also that I think there was something deeply fraudulent about the whole operation. Not so much in his implied claim to be the kind of Irish American that the Irish voter back home identifies with. The real implied claim was that his values were Irish values. And his real values, quite simply, are such that if at College Green he had spelled them out in any detail, that adoring crowd would have become at first embarrassed, and then hostile. It may be that support for the Catholic Church in Ireland is not, given its recent history, what it was (though Mass attendance is still among the highest in Europe). But Catholic values and beliefs are another thing entirely. And those values and beliefs are very far from being Obama’s. As I have written before in this space,

“… across the whole spectrum of contemporary moral issues, he is passionately committed to a series of views which run directly contrary to those of the Church. All this has caused at least one Catholic bishop (there are probably others) to call him anti-Catholic.

“As a Senator, he supported sex education, to be provided by Planned Parenthood, to children of five years old. He consistently voted for abortion, including partial birth abortion. He voted (twice) against Bills prohibiting public funding of abortions; he voted in favour of expanding embryonic stem cell research; he voted against notifying parents of minors who had undergone out-of-state abortions; he voted for a proposal to vote $100,000,000 for the funding of sex-education and contraceptives (including abortifacients) for teenagers; he opposed the “Born Alive Infants Protection Act” on the Senate floor and in 2003 killed the bill in committee. This would have outlawed “live birth abortion,” where labor is induced and an infant is delivered prematurely and then allowed to die.”

The fact is that Irish America (whether individuals are orthodox and practising or not) is the heartland of the pro-life movement. And to see that Irish crowd in College Green gripped, held in the palm of Obama’s hand by his formidable oratorical powers so that Irish voters back home could observe his triumph was a spectacle that made me feel distinctly queasy. It was nothing less than blatant electioneering, and I hope that Catholic voters see through it. Cristina Odone, one of my predecessors as editor of the Herald, thinks that they will:

“I suspect Obama’s Machiavellian tactic will backfire. The Irish will spin it as a PR triumph capable of regenerating their tourism rather than as a politically momentous occasion; the Irish Americans will quite rightly view the trip as a desperate, last ditch appeal to them.
O’Bama, oh why sink so low?”

I hope that she’s right. But I very much fear he will get away with it. As I say, this is the kind of thing he’s very good at.

  • Luis

    Yes, let’s stick to the issues!  Obama on the issues LOSES!  Americans do not want Obama’s nonsense!  Obama is so wrong in thinking that the United States of America, the greatest nation in the history of man, needs to be changed in the drastic ways that he is pushing, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly.

    Obama is about as much Irish as my dog, Fido.  His grandfather’s grandfather may have been Irish, but he is nothing more than a cheap Chicago thug.

  • GFFM

    Obama’s pro-abortion record was fully exposed during his campaign for president and during the University of Notre Dame commencement speech debacle. He is proud of what can only be described as the most fanatical support for abortion and infanticide by any American president to date. Secondly, his record on embryonic stem cell research is equally as egregious. All of this information about his flagrant and proud disregard for nascent human life is readily available on the internet. The Irish enthusiasm at his visit is painful to watch and is a sign of their cultural decline. As I have indicated before, they are taken in by Obama’s Elmer Gantry like speechifying. It was a difficult sight to behold.

  • Parasum

    “And to see that Irish crowd in College Green gripped, held in the palm
    of Obama’s hand by his formidable oratorical powers so that Irish voters
    back home could observe his triumph was a spectacle that made me feel
    distinctly queasy. It was nothing less than blatant electioneering, and
    I hope that Catholic voters see through it.”

    Obama’s a politician, not a moralist – and not, it seems, an eedjit. He would have been remarkably dunder-headed not to make the most of any opportunities his visit gave him for commending himself to potential voters in his own country. So he took them. What President in his right mind would fail to do so ? At least he has some substance, unlike Mrs. Palin. And what is wrong with oratory ? Is there not a tradition of oratory in Ireland, & among blacks ? If so, then for him to practice it there makes very good sense.   Or is oratory for ever irredeemable because it has at times been used for bad ends ? That is not Catholic thinking.

    JP2 “held people in the palm of his hand” – why is it objectionable if & when Obama does so ? Or is the problem simply this: that Obama supports abortion ? But so did Reagan, Clinton, Bush the Younger, Blair – so *if* Obama’s failure to satisfy Catholic teaching on this point is the problem, where are all the Philippics against them ?  And why should a President, who is not & has never been a Catholic have to satisfy Catholic teaching ? Do Catholics have to satisfy Calvinist or Anglican teaching, or Sharia law or Confucian ethics ?

    STM that there are those for Obama is incapable of not being the spawn of Satan.

  • Parasum

    If he were anti-Catholic, why has he not:

    outlawed Catholicism
    made communication between the US & Rome impossible
    expelled the Nuncio
    closed churches
    secularised or demolished religious houses
    confiscated the property of the CC
    tried, convicted, and imprisoned  or executed the clergy
    destroyed books of doctrine and worship
    crippled the Church with fines
    set up an American Catholic Church for the USA to govern instead of Rome
    fined Catholics who try to practice
    forbidden Catholics  to participate in politics
    forbidden Catholics to have more than one child

    There are so many things a self-respecting anti-Catholic head of state could in order to show how anti-Catholic he is. And he has done none of these – never mind all of them. He’s not anti-Catholic, unless  being anti-Catholic includes not being Catholic in doctrine. But if not holding the doctrines of a Church to which one does not belong is enough to constitute anti-Catholicism, then everyone on earth outside the CC – & millions within it too – is “anti-Catholic”.  Which is absurd, & untrue, & deprives the word of meaning :(  To call Obama “anti-catholic” is pretty Macchiavellian; but it will probably work on some people.

    By such “logic” Catholics are anti-whatever is not Catholic: such as the monarchy, Parliament, & just about everything else not in union with Rome.

  • Jdekrub

    You left out the part where you call him the N-word.  But I am happy to oblige.  What you meant to say is that a cheap, filthy Negro could never be as good as your revered Irish grandfather.

    It is shameful that the “Catholic” Herald allows these egregious comments.  But then the author of the article has clearly encouraged such rancor. 

  • Harper

    Most of the so-called 40 million Americans of Irish origin are Protestant, as Kirby Miller, Donald Akenson and other historians of Irish America have pointed out. This is due not only to the greater muliplier of descendants of 18thC mainly Ulster immigrants, but also to the fact that more Irish Catholics than is generally realised left the eastern seaboard for the West. Living in Minnesota among Scandinavian Lutherans with shortages of Catholic spouses led to marrying out. Moreover, there were more Irish Anglican emigrants to America than the stereotype would allow. Also, contrary to the stereotype, the great majority of Catholic Irish Americans are not as politicised as the Boston  St Patrick’s Days and NORAID collection boxes would suggest. Most, fortunately, never thought that they had a right to finance murder in Ireland in defiance of Irish government policy.

  • Oconnordamien17

    Yup.. and there’s a lot of us. We now are second in number only to catholics.
    In fact there’s more atheists here than, C of I, muslims and jews combined.
    We are also the fastest growing.

  • Lee

    I find this quite ironic seeming that unlike The Queen who did not need to go to the lengths she went to in Ireland, she did. However, Obama here who has nothing at stake per se, goes putting his foot in it trying to I guess getting one up on Her Majesty’s visit. If only more Irishmen knew how pivotal Irish protestants were to their ‘nationalism’ perhaps today the Holy Catholic Faith in Ireland would not be in the state it is in having been used as a trojan horse for nationalism, then left to rot after independence was attained especially after Vatican II which encouraged the Ethnarcies whereof one finds in Orthodoxy.

  • Oconnordamien17

    I suspect Dr. Oddie is suffering from the ” cailins on crossroads” view of the “Irish Catholic”. 
    In general he has a good knowledge of Ireland, but no clue of being Irish today.We have had two major historic visits, the reaction to the first was apathy, to the second, enthusiasm.As a people the Irish have a huge empathy with oppressed people, so of course we gravitate towards the first black U.S. president. We also love the message of “Yes we can” and the change to the status quo that Obama seemed to represent. The idea that the Irish people would reject him as a protestant is below contempt.Are the people of my country that shallow or stupid?Were the crowd convinced he’s an Irish Catholic?Do we think he’s going to sweep in and fix our problems?Would we blame him for doing his job and trying to fix his own country first?Do we blame him for wars that were started by his predecessors?And do we judge him for voting for laws in his own country that we might not have voted for?I think the book signing by Tony Blair shows that we now think of the living and actual suffering.rather than another dogma of the RCC.We will embrace a man who will show hope and change to the better.And riot against a liar who tries to be pious.

  • Charles Martel

    Spot on, Dr Oddie.

  • Ratbag

    Really. Fastest growing.. Hah!… the novelty will soon wear off…

  • Ratbag

    ‘second in number only to Catholics…’ Oh, my sides are aching! Where did you get that from? The Brothers Grimm?

  • Don Dr. Patrick Foley

    Dear Dr. Oddie I am a Catholic Irish American who has been teaching history in universities and colleges for more than four decades.   I have many publications on Catholic history and have received many awards.   My great grandfather and grandmother ventured to America from Cork in 1844.   I have been quite disheartened with Mr. Obama’s views on several issues which contradict the Catholic Irish purview of civilization: abortion, homosexual lifestyles, etc.   Your essay was exceptionally well written, and I agree with it 100 percent.

    Peace in Christ,

    Don. Dr. Patrick Foley