When Irish eyes are smiling, Americans smile, too

How I longed for an apostrophe in my youth. Whenever I was asked my name during my school years in Washington, I would watch a smile of recognition light up my interlocutor's face: "O'Done . . . is that Irish, then?" The smile snapped shut the moment I had to admit that, no, it was Italian, and there was no apostrophe between the O and the D.

A shame, really, because in the US, it is much better to be Irish than Italian - or British, for that matter. The British may pride themselves on the special relationship they enjoy with those across the Atlantic, but their entente is positively frigid in comparison to the warm embrace in which Americans wrap the Irish.

Theirs really is a special relationship, as Bill Clinton confirmed when, for his swansong, he went to Ireland. (A lecture at Warwick University was but a postscript to the big event.) A US president in search of a place in history and in his people's hearts, knows that neither Kosovo nor even Israel can compete with the Emerald Isle when it comes to securing status and photo ops. Get the peace process back on track, and Monica will be dry-cleaned out of your record - and your successor will struggle in your shadow. Not that Clinton's role in Northern Ireland is purely politic; there's a great deal of the personal involved as well. For eight years, the leader who models himself on JFK has played a crucial role in helping to push through the Good Friday Agreement. "I care about it deeply," he has said, again and again.

And so do the folks back home. For one thing, the Irish are what Americans love above all else - a success story. The immigrants - Catholics and Protestants both - fled those potato fields, left behind the famine and the tyranny of Lord Palmerston and the landowners (English, most of them) and, after a few decades in the sweatshops of Hell's Kitchen, now anchor their yachts in Hyannis Port. But even those who stayed behind are now in clover, doing very well thank you out of the European Union (despite a few hiccups with inflation, Ireland is still doing much better than Britain, which increasingly smells of the sore euro-loser); becoming a net importer (for the past three years) of labour; and turning Dublin into a happening place to rival London.

It is not just success that ties Americans to the Irish; sentimentality, too, bonds the two peoples. The Irish community gave to Americans F Scott Fitzgerald, their most romantic novelist; and JFK, their favourite president (although he was the only Catholic president of Irish descent, there have been Protestant presidents who could claim Irish roots, including Roosevelt and Reagan), providing, in his Camelot administration, a taste of Celtic glamour and leprechaun sentimentality. No wonder, then, that when St Patrick's Day comes round, shamrocks festoon every city and everyone sports green. (St George's Day, on the other hand, doesn't raise a squeak outside the British Embassy on Washington's Massachusetts Avenue.) No wonder that, in Boston pubs, they're not just downing Guinness, but having a whip-round for Sinn Fein.

Indeed, fundraising for the "cause" has come out of the smoky pubs chock-a-block with construction workers and cops, and is being carried out by lawyers and businessmen in the swanky Sheraton Hotel and Towers in New York. Americans sympathetic to the IRA have increased their fundraising in the past year; almost $900,000 (including $500,000 raised at the 8 November annual dinner) has been collected for Friends of Sinn Fein in the past six months. That brings the tally for the group to $4.5m since it was formed in 1995, when President Clinton first gave approval for Sinn Fein to seek funds in the US - so long as the money was spent on politics and not guns.

What will happen once Clinton leaves the White House? The Irish need not worry. Sinn Fein is not party political in the US; and indeed, Mandy's anxious lest George W Bush get in, because of his pro-Sinn Fein entourage. Across the Atlantic, those Irish eyes will keep smiling.