Miriam Lord’s Week: Baby Margot steals the Joe show on a bittersweet day for Labour

Old pro Biden left holding Senator Rebecca Moynihan’s two-month-old daughter after Thursday’s address to Oireachtas

US president Joe Biden’s address to the Houses of the Oireachtas on Thursday evening was a bittersweet occasion for the Labour Party politicians in Leinster House.

There were those wonderful scenes inside and outside the chamber with Senator Rebecca Moynihan and her two-month-old daughter Margot, who became the breakout star of the president’s visit to Kildare Street.

Biden’s media people must have gone weak at the knees when they saw the images of him holding tiny Margot in his arms at the foot of the ceremonial staircase.

He’s an old pro. You will never hear a frustrated photographer yelling “Kiss the baby! KISS THE F***IN’ BABY!” when Joe is dandling a winsome tot.


Rebecca’s Labour colleagues were thrilled for her.

They weren’t supposed to be in the Dáil chamber at that stage in the evening but the president was running well behind schedule and it would have been bad manners to leave. They also wanted to meet (and do some valuable networking) with Biden’s guests and members of his entourage at a short reception afterwards.

But this meant they missed the removal and “lying in state” of their old comrade and mentor Pat Magner, who died earlier this week at the age of 82. His wife, Anne Byrne, another Labour stalwart, had organised the wake at a time to facilitate politicians, but lingering Joe scuppered the plan.

Pat’s former colleagues reckoned he would have loved being part of the Biden bunfight.

Pat, a proud son of Cork, was a Labour member for more than 50 years and served three terms as a senator in the 1980s and 1990s. He was known as shrewd back room operator and was one of Dick Spring’s key advisers during that period, going on to serve under subsequent leaders Ruairí Quinn and Pat Rabbitte. He retired as national organiser in 2006 but remained a sounding board for the party.

Pat was the best of company and a popular figure in Leinster House, with friends from across the political spectrum.

Former Labour spin doctor and strategist Fergus Finlay gave the eulogy at his funeral in St Patrick’s Church in Monkstown on Friday morning. Labour leader Ivana Bacik was joined by her predecessor Brendan Howlin and the aforementioned Spring, Quinn and Rabbitte.

The funeral party repaired to Gleesons in Booterstown and talk turned to presidential visits. Finlay recalled a State banquet in 1995 held in honour of president Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary. Dick Spring, then tánaiste and minister for foreign affairs, was seated next to Clinton, who left the table at one point to work the room.

When he returned he said to Spring: “Who’s the guy with the really funny accent? He’s the funniest guy I’ve met in a long time.”

Spring replied: “That was Pat Magner. And that, Mr President, is a Cork accent.”

No bidin’ up North

The Northern leg of Biden’s trip was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it affair.

The relatively short period of time he spent in Belfast compared to his bucket-list sojourn south of the Border triggered an amusing outbreak of insecurity among certain sections of the English media. On Friday, a throwback cartoon in the Times of London featuring dancing Biden leprechauns and pints of Guinness (he doesn’t drink) would have caused outrage in other years but the best we could manage was a no-nonsense Mayo woman who went on Liveline to dismiss the graceless doodles as “pure jealousy” before regaling listeners with racy anecdotes from her long and eventful life.

On Thursday morning, after the US president had spent his first full day in Ireland proclaiming how lucky he is to be an Irishman, Sky’s Kay Burley conducted a breakfast-time interview with a former UK ambassador to Washington to ascertain if Joe Biden really does hate the English.

“He sometimes misspeaks, but I remain convinced that he is a friend of the UK,” soothed highly respected former diplomat Lord Kim Darroch.

The sound of toys flying out of patriotic prams across the water provided a sneakily satisfying counterpoint to the upbeat mood music here. When an American president’s much-desired and very cherished special relationship with one of the former colonies became abundantly clear, stiff upper lips were underpinned by pouting and quivering lower lips.

“But… but… but... our special relationship is supposed to be the most specialest of all.”

It would not be right to laugh at this turn of events because it is all rather sad.

Aah, but g’wan. Sure we will so.

And speaking of that brief foray into Northern Ireland, Joe Biden’s special economic envoy proved quite a hit with the locals.

Joe Kennedy lll charmed his way around Belfast. One image of first minister designate Michelle O’Neill dreamily gazing up at the latest Kennedy summed up the general response. Joe went down a treat with equally smitten observers as he schmoozed in unison with the commander-in-chief.

They seemed to think he has what it takes to be a future president.

Snap happy

There will be lots of framed photographs going up on walls in homes around the country after Joe Biden departs these shores. He was so genuinely happy to be back “home” that only the most cynical and hard-hearted would deny him this reality.

Selfies abounded. Newstalk’s Henry McKean chanced his arm with a request for one as Biden was about to return to the Áras with Michael D and Sabina after the bell-ringing ceremony. He agreed with alacrity, much to Henry’s astonishment.

But then, as in all the venues he visited, Joe seemed genuinely reluctant to leave and let go. But he’s left plenty of photographic evidence behind.

One of the set-piece photo ops was the Cabinet family photo: Leo, Micheál, Eamon and all the senior Government Minsters with the president in the middle of the front row. Although of course they are too preoccupied with important affairs of State to take these type of fripperies too seriously... not. They all look fit to burst with happiness in the photo. Minister for Education Norma Foley went all out with black velvet palazzo pants and swathes of burnt orange satin. Burnt orange – Joe’s favourite colour when he isn’t unintentionally putting his foot in it with the unionists.

Helen McEntee, who is on maternity leave from her job in Justice, returned for the banquet and family photo. She asked the president to sign two copies of his book Promise Me, Dad for her boys, Michael and Vincent.

But this happy event was not without drama.

As the participants gathered in their finery, ready for their close-up, there was one problem.

The Green Party leader was missing and nobody knew where he was.

What to do? And with the US president waiting for somebody to take the snap so he could get on with hugging and fist-bumping, kissing babies and slapping fellas on the back like Enda Kenny on speed.

But finally, mercifully, Eamon Ryan arrived. Slightly breathless. His tie might not be as straight as it should be.

But he got there and has the photo to prove it.

Mollycule Theory tested

We got to thinking about Flann O’Brien and bicycles on Thursday evening as we looked at a certain section of the Opposition benches and couldn’t recognise some of the people in the seats. In fact, the small area usually populated by the Socialist Party and People Before Profit TDs had become the occupied territories.

With Richard Boyd Barrett et al boycotting president Biden’s speech, a group of opportunist Senators slid into the pews they left vacant.

There was the bould Timmy Dooley of Fianna Fáil in Boyd Barrett’s berth – prime seat, great view. We hear that there was great competition among certain Senators of the non-left persuasion to bag one of the socialist spots. He was joined by Fine Gael’s Maria Byrne while Sharon Keogan, an Independent Senator who inhabits the other end of the political spectrum, was also happily ensconced in the Dáil’s Revolutionary Quarter.

But back to Flann O’Brien and his bicycle theory. You see, if a man spends enough time on his bicycle, the atoms and the molecules between man and mechanically propelled vehicle begin to mix until eventually a creature which is half man and half bike is created.

Was Timmy in that chair long enough to absorb some Boyd Barrett molecules?

Did he leave atoms behind for when Richard resumes his rightful place?

There’s a thought.

Talk to Joe

Needless to say, quite a few TDs and Senators made a holy show of themselves during Biden’s visit to the Dáil chamber.

Ushers and Secret Service operatives were almost crushed to death in the rush to bag a handshake or snatch a photograph or simply be captured in the same TV frame as the distinguished visitor.

Fine Gael backbencher Alan Farrell had a prime position at the end of the row beside the steps down to the Ceann Comhairle’s dais.

He managed to grab the president on the way in and whisper something that Joe will forget for the rest of his life.

After the speech, Alan collared him a second time. On this occasion, he pointed to his beaming colleague Charlie Flanagan. Charlie, he told the fascinated Potus, was also in the chamber when Bill Clinton addressed the joint Houses.

And wait. There’s more.

Charlie’s father, Oliver J Flanagan, was in the chamber when John F Kennedy famously did the honours in 1963 and again when Ronald Reagan delivered a speech in 1983.

Meanwhile, it was noted that when an emotional Jerry Buttimer, Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, thanked Biden for supporting marriage equality, three Rural Independent TDs sitting together – Mattie McGrath, Danny Healy-Rae and his brother Michael, did not join in the applause.

Stumbling in

As a paid-up member of the Bockety Knee Brigade, we watched Joe Biden, Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina as they negotiated the gravelled pathways, granite steps, slippery grass and boisterous dogs in Áras an Uachtaráin. It was quite touching to see Joe and Sabina holding hands as they made their way back into the building after the outdoor events.

But we bockety-knee people know that danger lies at every turn. And perhaps the most alarming episode of the Biden visit, when he appeared most in peril, was at the top of the ceremonial staircase outside the Dáil chamber.

There was a melee outside the doors and the president, flanked by Jerry Buttimer and the Ceann Comhairle, finally made it to the top step. The stairs are quite steep and the steps are high. The three of them prepared to descend, with Joe in the middle and no brass railing for support.

The Ceann, who is a martyr to his joints and recently had his knees replaced, looked terrified as he too couldn’t reach the rail. But he moved across like a thoroughbred hitting the inside on the final furlong.

He took a firm grip of the rail and commenced the descent. Joe looked a bit worried, but he put his best foot forward. Eventually, he put his hand on Seán Ó Fearghaíl’s shoulder for support. Which wasn’t particularly wise. Jerry Buttimer, meanwhile, was oblivious, while the president’s Secret Service shadow looked like he was going to faint with anxiety.

It must have been the sight of Rebecca Moynihan and baby Margot which spurred Joe on. He powered on down to the bottom and claimed his gurgling prize.

The Ceann Comhairle also gurgled. With relief.


Miriam Lord

Miriam Lord

Miriam Lord is a colour writer and columnist with The Irish Times. She writes the Dáil Sketch, and her review of political happenings, Miriam Lord’s Week, appears every Saturday