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Crystal and Shamrock Ritual Obscures Irish Economic Woes

It’s one of Washington’s most time-worn rituals: the St. Patrick’s Day journey of Ireland’s Prime Minster, or Taoiseach, to the White House with a group of Irish dignitaries to present the sitting president with a crystal bowl of Shamrocks. Ireland’s Enda Kenny posed for the cameras today with President Barack Obama and the story behind the photo op said more about Ireland’s current economic state than the tradition itself, which dates back to John F. Kennedy’s day.

For one thing, the last decade was marked by a reversal of the boom time Celtic Tiger economy, as Ireland has faced a brain drain to the United States prompted by the great recession and accelerated by favorable visa rules put in place by the Irish-American political lobby.

Then there’s the Waterford Crystal bowl itself: the one Kenny handed over to Obama was indeed made in Ireland, but only as a special order. The company shut down its manufacturing facilities in Waterford in 2009, after the company went into receivership. Today the brand name associated with the Emerald Isle makes most of its wares in Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Germany.

The Waterford company was established in 1783 in the Irish harbor town of Waterford by Irish brothers, William and George Penrose. Today, the company is owned by WWRD Holdings, Ltd.

Kenny alluded to the seven years of high emigration rates from Ireland earlier this month when he encouraged the Irish people to return home.

“Emigration has a devastating impact on our economy as we lose the input of talent and energy,” Kenny said on March 3. “We need these people at home. And we will welcome them.”

There was little of that talk in Washington today, and green shoots of recovery are in evidence as the Ireland’s economy grew 4.8 percent in 2014.

“Under the Taoiseach’s leadership, finances have stabilized, the economy is now growing again, unemployment is beginning to come down, and there are terrific opportunities for us to further collaborate in creating jobs both in the United States and in Ireland,” Obama said following the meeting.

Since 1961, Ireland has been giving a gift of a bowl full of shamrocks to the United States to celebrate the holiday. Ireland’s Ambassador Thomas J. Kiernan gave President John F. Kennedy a Waterford bowl and the Waterford tradition continued, with a few different manufacturers over the years.

In 1968, a bowl made from Kilkenny marble was given to President Lyndon Johnson from Ambassador William P. Fay. The bowl is in the LBJ Presidential Library.

In 2002, President George W. Bush received a 12-inch bowl made by Tipperary Crystal, engraved with a St. Patrick’s Day message from Prime Minister Bertie Ahern. The Bush presidential library holds one of the bowls Bush received, which is manufactured by Waterford.

In 2011, Obama received a bowl made by Fred Curtis Crystal with American flags engraved alongside a shamrock above an inscription. He was also given a black and white photograph of President Kennedy. That bowl, as well as this year’s gift, are no doubt headed to Obama’s own library, whether in Hawaii, New York City or Chicago.

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