White House 'goes green' for St Patrick's Day party

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The United States President claimed he knew all the words to "Danny Boy" so SDLP leader John Hume put him to the test with an impromptu sing-along, joined by Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, Bertie Ahern and his partner, Celia Larkin.

After a week of sombre attempts to get the Northern Ireland peace process back on track, the White House St Patrick's Day celebration was a chance to party in style.

There were green dresses and ties and shamrock-patterned scarves galore as more than 1,000 people raised the decibel level with chat and laughter under the glittering chandeliers.

Portraits of JKF and Jackie O looked down as a Who's Who of Irish politicians rubbed shoulders with the cream of Irish America, tucking into champagne and whiskey-flavoured chocolate cake to the tune of the harp, flute and tin whistle.

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness was kissed on the cheek by Derry-born Hollywood star Roma Downey, as she bent to whisper: "Tell Gerry (Adams) I was asking for him."

Gerry was there, as was Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, peace talks saint Senator George Mitchell, Secretary of State Peter Mandelson, decommissioning body head, General John de Chastelain, Irish foreign minister Brian Cowen and his deputy, Liz O'Donnell.

"It's okay, I know this house," said Courtney Kennedy Hill, daughter of the late Bobby Kennedy and wife of one of the freed Guildford Four, Paul Hill, as someone paused to show her the way.

There was raucous applause as a piper led the President and Mrs Clinton down the hallway flanked by Irish dancers in sparkling rainbow-bright costumes.

A medley of Irish songs from the Belfast Handbell Choir and internationally-renowned New York tenor Robert White opened the entertainment.

Authors Brian Friel and Frank "Angela's Ashes" McCourt applauded as Nobel Poet Laureate Seamus Heaney - "the man who actually managed to make Beowulf interesting", according to President Clinton, - read from his work.

There were murmurs of appreciation when he recited a poem written about the peace process, when "hope and history rhyme", expressing his wish for a "great sea change on the far side of revenge."

Hillary gave the welcomes, no doubt heartened by the sea of green lapel stickers proclaiming "Irish for Hillary" in support of her New York election campaign.

Then the President took the stage to shouts and cheers, grinning all around at friends in the audience, as he spoke of his love for Ireland.

"It was a fortunate wind that blew me into your presence," he told them, before introducing Bertie Ahern with words of praise for his "heroic and wise efforts" for peace.

The Irish premier abandoned his set speech as he cracked gag after gag.

When laughter floated in from one of the other reception rooms he teased the President he shouldn't have opened the bar to Irish people before the speeches were over.

It was President Clinton's last St Patrick's Day in the White House and he was determined to give his visitors a party to remember.

"I'm just worried about what we're going to do for a hall next year," joked Mr Ahern.

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