Senator Robert Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, decided it was time to come clean.
“I have a confession to make,” Casey said when asked how many times he had been to Ireland, the birthplace of his ancestors. “I’ve never been there.”
Casey and Wisconsin Republican Representative Paul Ryan were honored last night for their public service and their Irish roots at the American Ireland Fund’s 20th Annual National Gala.
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny was there with members of Congress, lobbyists and diplomats at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. The American Ireland Fund is the U.S. branch of the World Wide Ireland Funds, which have raised more than $90 million for over 300 Ireland-based charities.
The honorees were working the crowd at “Cooley’s Pub,” a green-tented area where the VIPs could down Irish spirits and nibble on appetizers before joining the more than 700 guests in the atrium for the dinner and program.
Casey gallantly introduced his mother, Ellen, the former first lady of Pennsylvania, who wistfully recounted her own trips to the old sod.
It was a family kind of night. Norah O’Donnell, the CBS White House correspondent and master of ceremonies, came with her mother, who’s also named Norah O’Donnell and whose parents were both Irish immigrants.
Holding court by the bar, Ryan stayed with water while Representative Timothy Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican, sampled the Irish whiskey.
Ryan said his St. Patrick’s Day consisted of his family’s recipe for corned beef and cabbage cooked in Jameson whiskey, mustard and brown sugar.
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, showed attorney Joe Hassett mobile-phone pictures of U2 frontman Bono, a close pal of Leahy’s whom his grandchildren call “Uncle Bono.”
Leahy also chatted up Luke Russert, the young journalist son of the late “Meet the Press” anchor and proud Irish-American, Tim Russert.
Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley caught up with Alex Attwood, the minister of the environment from Northern Ireland and Colm O’Comartun, the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association.
Before sitting down to dinner, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, in an elegant Thierry Mugler jacket and pearl choker, huddled with Kenny and Irish businessman Denis O’Brien, while the Irish ambassador to the U.S., Michael Collins, made sure his table guests from both sides of the Atlantic were properly introduced. Pelosi was the American Ireland Fund’s 2007 honoree.
Peter Westmacott, Britain’s new ambassador to the U.S., sat nearby with his wife, Susie Nemazee.
In his remarks before the dinner crowd, Kenny spoke of the “unprecedented challenges” facing the Irish economy, but said the Irish people have a “wealth” of priceless qualities, such as their “warmth and culture.”
Washington’s lobbying community was represented by Thomas Quinn, a partner with Venable LLP, Deborah Dingell, vice chairman of the General Motors Foundation, and Erik Huey, senior vice president for government affairs of the Entertainment Software Association.
After a dinner of shrimp and asparagus salad and beef entree, guests retired to “Cooley’s Pub,” which was transformed into a dessert and coffee bar.
(Stephanie Green is a writer and photographer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)