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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.

  • MaryO’Regan

    This is one of the best posts that I’ve ever read, well done William Oddie.
    I, for one, was born in the mountain of West Cork, and  have not been taken in by Obama’s stage-Irish antics. Watching him pander to us in College Green was good for a bit free theatre,  but sher, it was just that, a gifted thesbian’s electioneering.  But forgive us for wanting to see gains in tourism; God knows we need it!

    He needed the ham lines about looking for an apostrophe because he is so removed from any sense of true, spontaneous Irishness, that he only had recourse to these soundbites.

    One problem is that the Irish in Éire do not know – the details – of his pro-abortion record. Pro-life campaigners get very hot under the collar when describing Obama’s record, but many in Ireland think this is just hysteria. There is an attitude that Obama’s pro-abortion record is too-bad-to-be-true.

  • Jeannine

    Mary, here’s your ammunition, (Hopefully the website address is shown completely in my posting.) It references the various bills, acts, or amendments he voted on.

  • Geordieharvey

    As an Irish atheist I find this article incredibly ignorant and offensive.
    “No descendant of Irish protestants in America joins in those overblown St Patrick’s Day parades.”If you would care to study history a little you will discover that the St Patricks day celebrations were first initiated by Irish protestants in the USA. And how do you know who goes to the parades now? You don’t, you just make things up but then thats not really news is it?

    You seem to be implying to be Irish is to be Catholic. Does this apply to Wolfe Tone, Thomas Russell, Henry Joy McCracken etc. 

    The big irony here is that Obama is a “black” protestant which reminds us of the same phrase used to discriminate against working class protestants in Ireland.

    What this visit has done is show that neither government or the media wanted to mention that Obama was protestant. Evidently it is something to be ashamed of and an indicator of how Irish protestants might be treated in a United Ireland. A United Ireland that is now a lot further away than it was a few days ago.

  • Memory-of-Forever

    what I think he meant is that for a president who was so anti-catholic, he really was playing the catholic card (that he doesn’t own in the first place)

  • RJ

    Having lived in the Republic for a number of years, my impression was that Irish Catholics bent over backwards to accommodate their Protestant brothers and sisters, so I don’t think there need be any fear about the discrimination you imply.

  • bigskygirl

    He has not and never will appeal to my Irish roots…what a fake!  When you read his book “Dreams From My Father’ he clearly gives the impression he wants nothing to do with his mother’s people – so why is he suddenly claiming he’s Irish…does he not know that we Irish are white?   Like I said, he’s a fake!

  • Nearstar

    Aren’t the Irish Catholics usually too drunk to care? 

  • Nope

    As a non-believer, Scandinavian non-Irish jester, I do believe you are unfair. The US President Obama was simply trying to be kind to his hosts. Don’t read too much in it. Yet, your ” tribally Catholic” rant was a shot in the wrong foot, unfortunately your own. There is nothing tribal being Catholic, it is as much being a humble servant to Rome as it is being to London. If I had been Irish, I would have chosen Dublin over both London and Rome. Why being servants, at all?

  • Shane

    Dear Oddie, Eoghan Harris is NOT a blogger. He is a newspaper columnist for the Sunday Independent and hardly anyone takes him seriously anyway (search his name in I don’t know what his religion is.
    Clerical Whispers is a blog that reposts newspaper articles on religious affairs.

    Furthermore he doesn’t understand what a ‘Black Protestant’ actually is.

  • James McLaughlin

    Here in the Boston, Massachusetts area. The campaign bumper stickers are in Hebrew. I had one customer suprisingly in Brookline say to me, “You mean he’s not Jewish?!”

  • The Big Fella

    This is certainly a more insightful piece than anything I have read in the Irish media on the subject, and it raises interesting questions, such as…
    - To what extent is there such a thing as an Irish-American vote nowadays?- Can Irish America be said to be Catholic any more? (How many “Catholic” lawmakers in the US vote in accordance with Church teaching?) – How could a supposedly mostly Catholic country welcome so warmly someone so actively opposed to Catholic teaching? – If Obama had loudly and proudly proclaimed his protestant Irish heritage, would he have received an even greater cheer in Dublin? 
    The visit worked for both parties – a marketing opportunity for a broke country, and a photo opp for the 2012 White House race. No-one was even remotely thinking of any more than that.  

    Make no mistake, 21st century Ireland is a cold house for Catholics!

  • MaryO’Regan

    Obama’s sycophancy wasn’t kindness, it actually humiliated us.
    There is something persistently tribal about Irish Catholicism. Allow one mere example. Did you see the Irish Catholic travellers waiting in a nearby field for the Pope to come to Cofton Park? As an Irish Catholic woman, I have to be careful not to speak to single Irish Traveller men, in case their women folk think that I’m out to ‘pinch’ one!

  • Urscanb

    The Catholic Herald should remove this ignorant, offensive comment. Written by an inbred idiot no doubt.

  • Geordieharvey

    He was playing the Catholic card by pretending to be Irish? So anybody pretending to be Irish must therefore be pretending to be Catholic because Irish people are Catholic? 

    And how about that nonsense about the St Patricks day parade? Anybody care to reply about that?

    The message above is very clearly “If Obama was discovered to be Protestant then it would be clear he wasn’t Irish.”  

    Let me make clear again about the protestant names mentioned above who fought to free Ireland from British rule in 1798. They did so whilst the Catholic Church was in firm support of the British Crown.

  • Highland Cathedral

    You seem to be implying to be Irish is to be Catholic.
    You really should read the article more clearly. Mr Oddie does no such thing. He merely points out that most people in Ireland are Catholics or have Catholic roots and that for them, and thus for most Irish-Americans, President Obama’s views on moral issues are at total variance.

  • DB McGinnity

    The perspicacious Fergal Keane summed up the Irish speech as Stage Irish (stuff from ‘The Quiet Man). It was intended for Irish American voters. The speech was not out of place in an Irish political context; it was ‘blarney and flummery’. Anyone who ever heard Charles Haughey make a speech will know exactly the point I am making. He told the truth when he said “Your money is safe in my pocket” and the people cheered loudly just as they did for Obama. In Westminster Hall he was deferential and respectful to the hallow history and the events that taken place there. It is not a place for levity and does not easily lend it’s self to mirth. I have lectured in lecture theatres with 300 students, but I would have been petrified to make a speech in Westminster Hall. The question each person should ask themselves: “Could I have done it better”?In Westminster Hall he was deferential and respectful to the hallow history and the events that taken place there. It is not a place for levity and does not easily lend it’s self to mirth. I have lectured in lecture theatres with 300 students, but I would have been petrified to make a speech in Westminster Hall. The question each person should ask themselves: “Could I have done it better”?

  • Geordieharvey

    I’ve read the article and it clearly states that being protestant is a problem. It is also states that US based Irish protestants don’t call themselves Irish which is at best totally ignorant or at worst a downright lie.
    I do understand the point Mr Oddie is trying to make, however as with his ignorance about US based Irish protestants he is also ignorant about the views of Irish people. One thing he is right about is that support for the catholic church is not what it was, given its recent history. And as that support continues to dwindle and evidence based reasoning becomes replaces superstition more people will share Obamas views over Mr Oddies.

  • Geordieharvey

    Apologies, many grammatical errors in last post but I’m sure you get the point.

  • quidkat

    He is of Irish Protestant ancestory, not Irish Catholic. I am a prolife 3rd generation Irish Catholic American and we are not fooled! What an embarrassment.

  • patrick

    Oh, relax..

  • Mary O’Brien

    In America,  saying you are Irish equals growing up Catholic.
    Every Catholic in America knows that President Obama is not Catholic, by both word and deed.
    This was, for everyone involved, a make-nice trip.  Fun to watch but meaningless.

  • patrick

    What has Obama ever done for Ireland? Nothing. His speech was cloying and ham-fisted, and ultimately disrespectful to the Irish who gave their lives to preserve Irish and Catholic identity. If it was another country it may have been appropriate, but do try to consider the historical context of Irish identity. People were killed for refusing to speak English, and here comes Obama, eight generations later, trying to bask in the glory of better men.

  • patrick

    As an American Catholic of partial Irish descent, living in Chicago, it is my subjective impression that Catholics emphasize their “Irishness” more than Protestants, who tend to act more generically “white.” I could of course be wrong; I haven’t studied this scientifically. But it is true that most Irish people are Catholic, and I think that settled fact was what Dr. Oddie was referring to here. I didn’t read him as implying that Irish Protestants are less Irish, which is of course nonsense.

  • Ratbag

    Jeannine, Obama’s pro-abortion record was there for all the USA voters to peruse in the run up to his election. Catholic voters were warned about it. But, no, a lot of them went ahead and voted for him anyway – and he has succeeded in shoving his pro-abortion and contraception-at-any-cost stance not only in the USA but around the world. He has cynically thrown his anti-life spanner in the works at well known once-very-proud Catholic universities such as Notre Dame and Georgetown. It is painful to read the American Catholic websites about what his policies are doing to undermine America’s values… but they are not taking it lying down. No sir!

    Oh, so at last the Catholic media is waking up and taking the pegs off its nose to smell the coffee! It’s about time it saw this ‘emperor’ for what he is and have – yippee! - pointed out his lack of clothes!

    Sing a Te Deum, everybody! 

    Let everyone else cheer him on and think what he’s doing is ‘wunnerful’ etc. etc. I’m tired of people scowling just because I – and so many people – DARE to think otherwise! It’s in the media and other people who bill and coo at his every word and action. Give me strength!

    The Queen and Prince Philip played a blinder in Ireland last week. There was not one ounce of insincerity from either of them. Their state visit moved me more than I thought it would, to be honest.

    Obama, by comparison, was fraudulent. I hated his cynical seduction of the Irish. I watched the cringeworthy, sick-bucket rabble rousing speech he made from Dublin. He couldn’t radiate warmth or humanity if he slapped it all over him like goose fat on a swimmer about to swim the Channel and light it with a blowtorch!

    The few good things about College Green that day were Jedward and Imelda May. One song from each artiste? What a jip! Only to make way for verbal garbage!

    Obama is a desperate man. He’s trailing in the polls and it serves him right. His Spanish counterpart, prime minister Zappatero, is also going down the same way – their policies are strikingly similar.

    As I’ve said in a previous post, there are far worthier black Americans who can do a far better job than Obama… where the heck are they? If a candidate or two emerge in the coming years, they needn’t worry about Obama being a ‘hard act to follow’ … because he ain’t!

  • Ratbag

    An Irish atheist? Sweet luvin’ Dawkins, I’ve read it all…

  • Ratbag

    You are spot on, RJ. Even the first Irish President, Douglas Hyde, was a Protestant.

  • Ratbag

    Oh, you pessimist, you…

  • Ratbag

    You have the total wrong end of the stick…

    I think your beef is with the Roman Catholic Church as a whole. Typical atheist.

  • Ratbag

    Thank you for stating the obvious, quidkat.

    I sincerely hope that geordieharvey, who still has one’s wires crossed and his pants in a twist, will now untangle those wires and start feeling more comfortable in those knotted pants…

  • Ratbag

    Buck ejit!

  • Ratbag

    Spot on, bigskygirl! As for Irish = white, you’ve not met Irish international footy players Paul McGrath or Christ Hughton. Or Irish soul singer, Laura Izibor…

  • Jeannine

    I referenced the website ( & click on Obama’s name) only because there are many Europeans who do not have a clue on the voting record of Barack Obama. Mary would make a better case to her countrymen if she did not already have the facts.

    Many American Catholic baby boomers & their children have not been properly catechized. They equate abortion on the same level as poverty, unemployment, and other social ills. Whether poverty reducing programs worked or not, Obama has a good record for voting for them. This would of course attract the American Catholics who I described & would view Obama’s abortion record as a small issue. The Kennedy clan is a good example of this type of Catholic. Also, the fall of 2008 was a financially scary period resulting with the abortion issue being placed on the back burner for most Americans.

  • GFFM

    I can assure the readers here that no citizen of the States thinks that Obama cares one iota for his “Irishness.” I might add that a great majority of the midwest are inured to what William Oddie calls Obama’s “formidable oratorical powers.” His artifice is fatiguing indeed. He means none of it and a majority of the country knows it, left and right. Obama has and always will be a kind of Elmer Gantry. He is a “speechifier” as we say; not a great rhetorician. We are all quite tired of his staged, tele-prompter, unimaginative scripts. He is unable to have a press conference without a rehearsal, and without knowing the questions a head of time–when he has a press conference that is. All is prepared, all is staged. So, his “formidable oratorical powers” are overblown. He is in fact a kind of ivory tower academic pontificator–and that is about all.

  • Geordieharvey

    He is of Irish Protestant heritage. So whats the problem? What does this mean?

  • Geordieharvey

    I agree.

  • maryp

    Thank you for this excellent article. There’s a publication in the US called ‘The Wanderer’ which tells the truth about the workings of the Democatic party in Chicago of which Obama is a product. Not sure if it’s available online though.
    Obama seems to have so many people fooled. No true “Irish American” could ever support him.

  • mydogoreo

    What did you want him to say to the Irish, “It took us over 200 years to run our country into the ground but it only took you ten to run yours down”?  Also, considering how small the population of Ireland is, it’s abortion rate is unconscionable.  Instead of painting Obama as a panderer, the Irish should look at themselves and see how they give lip service to values they don’t possess.

  • Jere Joiner, Colorado Springs

    Obama will get away with it — the major media will make sure of that. And Catholic bishops are so reticent of offending Democrats that they won’t mention it in diocesan newspapers. Obama’s speech writers are so confident of the president’s oratorical ability that they spend most of their time making sure there are no gaffes of fact in the lines he delivers so easily. People thought President Reagan the actor was a great communicator. He couldn’t hold a candle to the person in the White House today. Whether the public ever realizes the king has no clothes, that there is no “there” there, remains to be seen.

  • Jon Mack

    The purpose of Obama’s visit to Ireland was well accomplished: to enforce the Geithner Doctrine (governments must bail out large private banks) and to emphasize to the new Irish Prime Minister that he must not disown the government’s pledge to pay the debts of Ireland’s privately owned banks. The president was rewarding the Irish Prime Minister with a populist happy fest, with a pat on the head for obeying the Geithner Doctrine. The rest was PsyOps, manipulation of perception.

  • Jere Joiner, Colorado Springs

    The website was not shown completely and thus would not load in my computer.

  • Jon Mack

    Please, stop with the religious bigotry. Protestant Irish are Irish. Pope John Paul II put great effort into changing the traditional Republic of the Poles to the Republic of Poland so that Jewish Polish people would not be excluded from full citizenship, a custom that encouraged anti-Semitism. Protestants, and blacks with Irish citizenship, are Irish.

  • Jon Mack

    Look, both my parents were involved in the Irish War of Independence, along with some Protestant neighbors. Both families preserved the Irish language when it was abandoned by neighbors after Catholic Emancipation They did not seek Irish independence to encourage Catholic bigotry.

  • Jon Mack

    Irish does not equal white. My Irish-African-British and Irish-African-French relatives are as Irish as any Irish-American, thank you very much. The Herald is a Catholic paper and certainly does not endorse narrow-minded tribalism and racism. The article is about values and authenticity. Stick to the issues.

  • Anonymous

    I doubt any real Catholic, Irish or not can believe that Obama holds that life begins at the moment of conception and that life is precious at this exact moment.

  • Jeannine
  • Mac

    Irish values?  What values?  Who elected the Kennedy’s in Massachusetts year after year?  Irish American “values” are Hollywood, rock concerts, pockets full of condums.  Like the Brits, Ireland is slated for death.  Where’s the kids?  How many Irish babies aborted.  If you think American Irish will catch on how un-Christian Obama is you are in dreamland.  Where were these smart, staunch Irish American Catholics in the last  elections?  How come the most pro-abort pro-sods in congress are Irish — and other cafeteria Catholics?    What’s happened to the “Fighting Irish”?   How many Irish Catholic clerics are hardly Catholic?  Dozens.   How can Irish Catholics trust the hierarchy when they fawn over celebrity, roll over the green carpet for Kennedy’s funeral, kowtow to any one with money, and grant annulments to the rich????

    Let’s list Irish values:  divorce, abortion, contracep, shacking-up, all OK and widely practiced today by any Irish family.

    Mac – Houston

  • Lajollajan1

    I don’t know why he won’t stay home and take care of his business.  Yes, I do. He doesn’t have an answer. He screwed up and this Country is going downhill.  If he stays away he thinks we will forget about it.  Everytime he takes off in that beautiful plane he is costing the tax payers big bucks which we could be using to pay off our/his debts.  Every penny counts.  So grow up Mr. President, you don’t impress us with your galvanting while the house burns down.

  • The Big Fella

    I’m afraid Mac’s post is not without foundation. Dr.Oddie may be optimistically assuming that there’s more substance left in Irish catholicism than is actually the case. We say that our 33rd county is Massachusetts, and one gets a true sense of what is happening there in Phil Lawler’s excellent book “The Faithful Departed”. We Irish have embraced British popular culture and secularism in a way that has transformed the face of our nation in a few short years, and this is to be lamented by both Irish and British Catholics (the small number who are left). 

  • Kqgreen

    I am a US protestant. I think the Obama visit was just a good-natured exchange with the Irish people. After all, it is amazing that he has some roots here. As an American, I did not see anything to be mad about. Surely, your soul does not tell you that an abortion belief is the door to respect and friendship. A wedding has just joined my family with an Irish family. Happy visits across the Atlantic both ways have been wonderful. A close friend at work is from Laos, raised Buddhist. She married Irish, joined the Catholic faith and is now a lay teacher and leader. We feel this deep and awesome caring together. You are blessed.

  • Luis


    Mr Oddie:  Americans are now understanding that Obama is a flim flam, phony, thuggish, lightweight, inexperienced, socialist, and as you say, with principles that are completely antagonistic to Catholic principles.  He is an aberration and when we ge rid of him, it will all just seem like a bad dream.

    Thanks for an excellent column.