WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Barack Obama nominated Steelers chairman Dan Rooney to be his top diplomat to Ireland on March 17, 2009. Following his confirmation just before his 77th birthday, Rooney began his diplomatic career.
Rooney’s connection and deep affection for Ireland was common knowledge in Pittsburgh. The Rooney family came from the Northern Ireland border town of Newry, and in 1976 Rooney co-founded The American Ireland Fund with H.J. Heinz Co. president Tony O’Reilly, which raised more than $600 million to support peace efforts and charitable Irish organizations worldwide.
Rooney was a strong booster of Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign, despite having previously been a lifelong Republican. Most of the Pittsburgh political establishment had supported Hillary Clinton (who would become the Obama administration’s Secretary of State) during the closely contested primaries.
The Obama administration wasted no time in nominating Rooney to serve as ambassador to Ireland, choosing St. Patrick’s Day for the announcement. In a statement, the President said: “Dan Rooney is an unwavering supporter of Irish peace, culture, and education, and I have every confidence that he and Secretary Clinton will ensure America’s continued close and unique partnership with Ireland in the years ahead.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was nothing less than charmed by Rooney during his confirmation hearing on June 25, 2009.
Arriving fresh off the Steelers’ Super Bowl victory, Rooney received some good-natured barbs from several senators, including the acting chair, Sen. Edward Kaufman, D-Del., who told Rooney, “While I grew up in Philadelphia and am a lifelong Eagles fan, the committee will not hold your Steelers ownership against you, though I would appreciate you sharing some of your six Super Bowl trophies with us one day.”
Rooney’s nomination was approved by the Senate the following day on June 26, 2009. It also marked the official end of his day-to-day employment with the Steelers after 54 years. His son, Art Rooney II, became the new team president.
The diplomatic posting came with a notable perk. The ambassador’s home, Deerfield Residence, was built in 1776 and is considered among the most beautiful in the world. Nearby is the 1,700-acre Phoenix Park, where Winston Churchill once played as a boy.
Two days after his arrival, Rooney threw out the first pitch at a baseball game organized on the lawn of Deerfield to mark July Fourth. He was overheard saying, “Why isn’t this football we are doing?,” and shortly after the property gained a decidedly Pittsburgh touch: an American football field, where Rooney hosted yearly flag football games on the Fourth of July.
Rooney became the first American ambassador to travel to all 32 counties in Ireland, north and south, and was particularly active in boosting the Irish economy after its collapse in 2008.
A licensed pilot, Rooney flew himself around Ireland with an Irish co-pilot. He made a point of landing in Shannon Airport a few times a year to hand out cookies to U.S. military personnel passing through to and from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rooney would serve as ambassador for three years before resigning on Dec. 14, 2012. The resignation was expected, as Rooney sought to return to Pittsburgh with his wife, Patricia. Writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rooney said, “I have had a lifelong commitment to advancing the relationship between the American and Irish people and building peace on this beautiful island, but came unexpectedly into politics and diplomacy ... It has been an honor and privilege to represent President Barack Obama and the United States of America as Ambassador to Ireland. President Obama charged me to protect and build the historic and deep friendship between our two countries. I am pleased to say this relationship, that is built on enduring family ties, a common heritage and shared values, is the strongest it has ever been. Ours is not a foreign relationship between two countries; our relationship is a shared kinship between two great peoples.”
Rooney died on April 13, 2017, at the age of 84.
After his death, President Obama said in a statement, “I knew he’d do a wonderful job when I named him as our United States Ambassador to Ireland, but naturally, he surpassed my highest expectations, and I know the people of Ireland think fondly of him today.”