Ronald Reagan picture

Toasts of the President and Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald of Ireland at a White House Luncheon

March 16, 1984

The President. There'll be a question about me being Irish since I came up here without this 1— [laughter] —the day before St. Patrick's Day.

Well, I know we all enjoyed Mr. Dowling, and I wish he hadn't had to shorten the program.

Mr. Prime Minister, Mrs. FitzGerald, and ladies and gentlemen:

I want to say how delighted that Nancy and I are to have you and Mrs. FitzGerald here today. I know you've been to America a good deal, and you're acquainted with us. But we're very proud that you could be our guest on your first visit here as Prime Minister. And we're especially happy to have you visiting at such an appropriate moment. Tomorrow is a great day in America, a day of bagpipes and shamrocks and a day when everyone is Irish or, as the saying has it, wishes they were. [Laughter]

In the United States, especially, the impact of the Emerald Isle on our culture and history is enormous. America is today, because of the Irish, a richer, brighter, freer, and, yes, a bit noisier country than it otherwise would have been. Virtually all Americans feel a surge of pride when they hear expressions like the "Fighting 69th," or the "Fighting Irish of Notre Dame."

I have to pause for a second. I've already told this to some of you, but I have to tell the rest because I know that Father Hesburgh is here in the room someplace from Notre Dame. Back in the days of the great Knute Rockne when Notre Dame was the giant of the football world, it was between halves one day at a game, when the officials came into the locker room and said to Rockne that the other team was complaining that the Notre Dame players in the pile-ups were biting them. [Laughter] And he said, "We can't fine them, of course, and, Rock, what do you think we should do?" And Rock says, "Tell them next year to play us on Friday." [Laughter]

But so many of our great public figures are of Irish ancestry, from the man considered by many as the father of the American Navy, John Barry, to our first heavyweight champion, John L. Sullivan, to the great tenor, John McCormack, to a couple of Presidents of the United States and, yes, even to the current Speaker of the House.

In fact, the secret wish disclosed the other day by my friend, Tip O'Neill, is an indication of the hold that Ireland has on all of us here in the States. This is a nation where the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives aspires to someday be Ambassador to Ireland. Tip, what about day after tomorrow? [Laughter]

Mr. Prime Minister, I was explaining to Tip only a few moments ago, though, seriously, why I thought that appointment was impossible, and perhaps, knowing your countrymen as you do, you'll agree with me. Tip, the Irish aren't looking for Speakers, they're looking for listeners. [Laughter]

Well, Mr. Prime Minister, the joshing we do here is in the best Irish tradition. It makes light of what are sometimes serious political differences. But I think there's one point on which the Speaker, Senator Kennedy, myself, and the other Irish American leaders here are united—our admiration for the efforts that you are making to bring peace and stability to Ireland. We support your personal mission in America to end the tragically misguided support of some here for terrorist elements in Northern Ireland.

Now, you know, Mr. Prime Minister, I've been told by one of your countrymen that the Reagan family line goes back as far as the great 11th century warrior king, Brian Boru. If it's true, I'm exceedingly proud. But sometimes, like you, I wonder what our brave ancestors—those who fought so gallantly over so many centuries against such hopeless odds—what they would say about the valor of people who commit acts of violence and prey on the innocent, sometimes maiming and killing innocent women and children.

Your words have been very direct on this point, Mr. Prime Minister. You've reminded those in this country who provide assistance to Northern Ireland's terrorists that they are assisting in violence and murder. Let me assure you that the vast majority of Irish Americans join you today in condemning support for those who preach hatred and practice violence in Ireland.

But there's another part of your mission to America, Mr. Prime Minister, which is perhaps more fitting to today's festive atmosphere and more important over the long run, and that is the message of hope that you bring us. We're especially heartened by your own efforts, as well as your colleagues', in the New Ireland Forum and the British Government as they seek a democratic and peaceful reconciliation of Ireland's diverse traditions. As we know, the high-level dialog between Ireland and Britain has been renewed, and the groups promoting reconciliation and economic cooperation—groups like Cooperation Ireland—are also bearing fruit. For our part, we shall continue to encourage American firms to invest in Ireland, north and south, in ways which promote prosperity and both traditions.

Some time ago, a former American Ambassador told me of a weekend retreat where politicians from the various Irish traditions met together for a frank discussion of the differences that separated them. And it was a good weekend. Those who'd never talked of such matters before were able to speak and listen to each other in a spirit of understanding. And on the bus back home, they laughed and sang songs. The spirit of friendship bloomed. And when they got off the bus, the spirit somehow seemed to evaporate. And after hearing this story, I told our Ambassador to take them a message, and I think it bears repeating.

Mr. Prime Minister, I express your sentiments, sir, and those of our own people and of the people of both parts of Ireland when we say to all those who struggle with the problem of peace in Ireland: "Please get back on the bus."

From my discussion with you this morning, Mr. Prime Minister, I know how deeply you're committed to this effort. I assure you the hopes and prayers of the American people go with you. Peace and good cheer have never left Irish hearts. And so we look to days of peace and harmony to come, when every day we may say what is said on St. Patrick's Day:

"O Ireland, isn't it grand you look
Like a bride in her rich adornin'?
And with all the pent-up love of my heart
I bid you top o' the mornin'."

But now, may I ask all of you here to join me in a toast to our friends, Prime Minister and Mrs. FitzGerald, and to the warmest and best friendships—Ireland and the United States.

The Prime Minister. Thank you, Mr. President, for those warm, encouraging, and heartening words which I think will bring comfort and, as you said, cheer to all our people in Ireland.

Joan and I and all of us from Ireland are very grateful to you and Mrs. Reagan for your warm welcome, your splendid hospitality in this beautiful and historic setting, provided by an Irish architect, James Hoban.

There's always a special friendliness about the American welcome that makes the visitor, and especially the Irish visitor, feel very much at home. We like to think that this is an aspect of the American character that derives from the Irish part of your heritage. [Laughter] No other country has a warmer place in Irish hearts than the United States, nor is any people prouder than we are of the contribution our forebears have made to the development of this great nation-and has been made, indeed, by the 43.7 million of them who are still working hard at it. [Laughter]

It's sometimes forgotten that the Irish ethnic tradition in American society historically has had two strands. The better known today is the predominantly Roman Catholic tradition of the immigration that swelled to huge proportions after the great famine of the 1840's. A strong tradition, indeed, it was, and still is the deep and positive influence in American society.

But it was not the only, nor the earliest tradition which the Irish brought to these shores. Most of the early Irish immigrants were Protestants, very many of them from what is now Northern Ireland. Such were eight of the nine men of Irish birth or descent who signed the Declaration of Independence. And such were the great majority-and here I beg leave, sir, in our own house to correct you—the great majority of the dozen American Presidents—I think you said "a couple,"— [laughter] —of established Irish origin. I know that the rest of them just never got around to tracing their roots properly. [Laughter]

In America, Irishmen of these two great traditions of Ireland have worked together to shape this wonderful country. We in Ireland hail them all with equal pride. But in one part of Ireland these two traditions have not yet come to terms with each other. Within Northern Ireland the two Irish traditions are sharpened into separate identities which have confronted one another in mutual, and sometimes violent antagonism.

With this tragic situation, we in the south cannot remain unconcerned. For these people—Catholic and Protestant, Nationalist and Unionist alike—are our own people. Their troubles are ours. And in the solution of their problems we have a crucial role to play, one that must be undertaken in the spirit of open-mindedness and generosity. To reconcile the conflicting identities of the two traditions in Ireland and to suggest new political structures that could accommodate both of them are the main tasks to which we, in the four political parties of Irish Constitutional Nationalism, north and south, representing 70 percent of the people of Ireland, have dedicated ourselves through the unique deliberations of the New Ireland Forum.

In undertaking this task, Mr. President, let me say how much we in Ireland value the encouragement that in your own words today you, yourself, have given to this cause of Irish reconciliation, together with the support of other great Irish American political leaders, some of them with us today here—Speaker O'Neill, Senator Kennedy, Senator Moynihan, so many others, who have given us comfort and heart and courage to continue with our work.

It was the great Abraham Lincoln, who wrote, "Among free men, there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet." He answered a century and more ago the claim by certain violent men in our Ireland to take power with a ballot box in one hand and an armalite rifle in the other.

When the Irish people come together, it will be in one way only—in peace, by agreement, under structures devised for the security of all the island's people and for the advancement of all their interests. And we know, and you've made it explicit today, Mr. President, that in our efforts to promote that process, we have your support and encouragement.

May I turn to your forthcoming visit with your wife to Ireland. Already this visit is the subject of conversation and excitement throughout the length and breadth of the land. We know how much you cherish your Irish heritage and how much you are looking forward to setting foot in that tiny village in County Tipperary—which, as I said to you, fortunately has a wide main street to accommodate all the people who'll be there when you come— [laughter] —from which your great grandfather stepped out bravely one day to face the world, as my own grandfather did, also, to the same place, London, a decade later, from a place not 7 miles away from Ballyporeen.

My father returned to Ireland half a century later to take part with my mother in the movement for Irish freedom. It's because they came back 70 years ago that I shall be there with Joan to welcome you and your wife on the 2d of June next, when you return for this visit to the land of your ancestors—the first of several—the last—not the last—one of a number of such visits. [Laughter] There have been others before and there will, I hope, sir, be others in the future also. Believe me, you'll receive a warm Irish welcome on that day and the succeeding days that you spend with us.

A Chad Mile Failte—as we say in Ireland—"a hundred thousand welcomes."

Mr. President, I've already presented you with some shamrock. We had a little difficulty. I tried pinning it on, but partly because of my concern to make sure I didn't actually physically assault the President of the United States by sticking a pin in him- [laughter] —I totally failed. The President took over the job himself and did it very neatly and quickly. [Laughter] But if I might formally present you with a bowl of our shamrocks so there will be some to go around to the whole family.

The President. I have something for you. The Prime Minister. Something for me? Oh, good. [Laughter]

[The President gave the Prime Minister a green cap.]

The Prime Minister. Do I put this on? [Laughter]

The President. Well, you don't have to. There! [Laughter]

The Prime Minister. How does it look? I take my hat off to you now. [Laughter]

Now, I've done precisely what the President did, only he remembered in time. I left my glass behind. I wonder if you'd just let me have the glass for the toast. This is the absentmindedness which gets me into trouble occasionally. [Laughter]

Now I want us all to raise our glasses to that happy day on the 2d of June next, to Irish-American friendship, and to the President and Mrs. Reagan.

1 The President was referring to his glass for the toast.

Note: The President spoke at 1:27 p.m. in the State Dining Room at the White House. Vincent Dowling, former artistic director of the Irish National Theatre in Dublin and current artistic director of the Shakespeare Company in Stamford, CT, provided the entertainment prior to the exchange of toasts.

Prior to the luncheon, the President and the Prime Minister met in the Oval Office.

Ronald Reagan, Toasts of the President and Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald of Ireland at a White House Luncheon Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Filed Under




Washington, DC

Simple Search of Our Archives