“Everything between us runs deep — the literature, the poetry, the sadness, the joy, but, most of all, our resilience,” Biden told more than 800 guests at the National Building Museum. “Despite everything, we’ve never stopped being dreamers. And I think we Irish are the only people in the world who actually are nostalgic for the future.”
It’s the present that’s problematic: Micheál Martin, Taoiseach of Ireland, abruptly left the dinner after learning that he had tested positive for the coronavirus. Martin, whose title means prime minister and who was visiting Washington for the 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 took a second test; that result came back positive and he slipped out after spending a short time at the event, where he sat next to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and briefly interacted with Biden (though the president was not considered a close contact, according to the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
The Irish government released a statement Thursday saying Martin was feeling well and isolating. A breakfast scheduled for this morning with Martin and Vice President Harris was canceled because the second gentleman Doug Emhoff tested positive for the coronavirus; today’s White House shamrock 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 the British and Irish ambassadors to the United States, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, retiring Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), two dozen other members of Congress and, for a random celebrity sighting, legendary singer-songwriter Carole King. Masks were required unless the guests were eating or drinking — which basically meant, after two years of isolation and fear, hundreds of people went maskless for most of the night.
“Everybody’s so happy to be out,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), wearing a green dress, green glasses, green watch — and a green mask. “It feels so good to see people. It feels so good to connect. But 10 of my friends in Congress have tested positive in the past few days. The problem is that people are done with covid, but 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 on the day of 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 point concentrated on the West Coast — was going to get worse. Soon after, the World Health Organization officially characterized covid-19 as a pandemic. The stock market nosedived.
“That event was really the last big official event in Washington,” said former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, one of the hundred or so non-socially distancing at the VIP reception Wednesday. “People were concerned, but they decided to go ahead with it. Now it feels like we’re getting back to normal. People are very excited, And you know the Irish — it’s hard to keep us apart. It’s like one big happy family.”
Wednesday’s sold-out fundraiser — which raised more than $1 million for Irish charities — was a return to that heady mix of politics and philanthropy that Washington does so well. The organization announced an emergency grant of $250,000 for Irish relief organizations helping Ukrainian refugees in Ireland.
But at its heart, the gala is a celebration of the ties between America and Ireland, with a heavy emphasis 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 leaned into his Irish heritage as a source of personal pride and public narrative, and was honored at this gala as vice president in 2014.
He was welcomed back Wednesday with an extended standing ovation as he took the stage, then chronicled his Irish roots, which come from his mom, Catherine Eugenia Finnegan. “I inherited my mother’s side of the family’s overwhelming pride — overwhelming pride in being Irish — a pride that spoke to both continents’ heart and soul, and drew from 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, Pa., according to a genealogy Biden commissioned when he was vice president. In 2013, he was inducted into the Irish America’s Hall of Fame and, three years later, three generations of Bidens traveled to Ireland to see his family ancestral sites, making headlines everywhere they went. The Finnegans’ story — hard-working immigrants seeking a better life — are foundational to Biden’s story.
On Wednesday, he marveled that the descendant of an Irish shoemaker could become president of the United States. “That’s America,” he said to applause. “Or as my grandfather Ambrose Finnegan would say, ‘That’s the Irish of it.’”
There were more speeches, as there always are, and food and drink and high spirits. 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 can do for now.