Image: Fountain at the White House
Ron Edmonds  /  AP
The fountain in front of the White House flows with green water in honor of St. Patrick's Day — courtesy of first lady Michelle Obama.
updated 3/17/2009 4:11:46 PM ET 2009-03-17T20:11:46

As White House fountains ran green for St. Patrick's Day, President Barack Obama saluted strong U.S.-Irish ties in a warm welcome for Ireland's leaders and turned to a critical campaign backer, Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, to fill the post of U.S. ambassador to Ireland .

"This is an affirmation between one of the strongest bonds between peoples that exists in the world," Obama said as he met in the Oval Office with the Irish prime minister, Brian Cowen.

And in a wee bit of blarney, Obama boasted of Irish ancestry.

"I, personally, take great interest on St. Patrick's Day because, as some of you know, my mother's family can be traced back to Ireland," the president said.

He even joked to Cowen: "We may be cousins. We haven't sorted that through yet."

Earlier, Obama tapped Rooney for the ambassadorship. A lifelong Republican, Rooney endorsed Obama during Pennsylvania's contentious Democratic primary last year and campaigned for him throughout the election. The president returned the favor by nominating him to the ambassador post, a move that had been the subject of almost fever-pitch speculation in Irish circles in recent days.

"I am honored and grateful that such a dedicated and accomplished individual has agreed to serve as the representative of the United States to the Irish people. Dan Rooney is an unwavering supporter of Irish peace, culture and education," Obama said in a statement.

White House goes green
From appearance to agenda, the White House was in an unmistakable Irish mood.

Video: Web only: Promoting peace in Ireland First Lady Michelle Obama came up with the idea to dye the fountains on the White House's North and South lawns green , said spokeswoman Katie McCormick Lelyveld. She was inspired by her hometown of Chicago, where the city marks the national holiday of Ireland by dyeing the river green.

The president took part in a shamrock ceremony at the White House, and then met with Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson and his deputy, Martin McGuinness, in a less high-profile gathering in his national security adviser's office.

Fighting the violence
Administration aides have singled out Cowen, Robinson and McGuinness as leaders who have resisted partisan reactions to a series of killings in Northern Ireland that threatens a decade's break in violence.

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Two soldiers were fatally shot on March 7 and a policeman murdered two days later. Washington condemned the deaths as senseless acts of political obstruction aimed at destroying the stability in Northern Ireland and supported leaders who urged restraint.

Video: Ex-foes unite Obama said it was no surprise that the opponents of a peace would try to undo it.

"The real question was this: When tested, how would the people of Northern Ireland respond?" Obama said in one of his appearances with Cowen. "And now we know the answer. They responded heroically. They and their leaders on both sides have condemned this violence and refrained from the old partisan impulses."

Obama and the Irish leaders also attended a Capitol Hill luncheon celebrating the holiday. Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Cowen paid tribute to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who is being treated for brain cancer and was unable to attend. Cowen said Kennedy was "our most special Irishman."

Obama said he learned last year during the campaign "that my great-great-great grandfather on my mother's side hailed from a small village in County Offaly."

He joked about putting the apostrophe after the "O" in Obama and suggested Barack was an ancient Celtic name. Addressing Cowen, he said, "I hope our efforts today put me on the path of earning that apostrophe."

The Irish guests were invited back to the White House for a cocktail reception Tuesday night that the president's aides say will be equal parts diplomacy and revelry.

For the evening event, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon from Northern Ireland was to be featured. The White House also invited Maggie McCarthy, a traditional Irish dancer and musician from Cork, and vocal group Celtic Thunder. The Shannon Rovers, the official pipe band of Chicago's St. Patrick's Day festival, also were set to perform.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Obama on Irish roots, N. Ireland peace

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