Steelers owner Dan Rooney is immersed in duties as U.S. ambassador to Ireland

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DUBLIN -- In Dan Rooney's front hall, there is a painting of Native Americans setting up camp beside a river, sometime in the 1700s.

It's an elegaic piece of art that anyone with a passion for American history -- and don't get Mr. Rooney started on his family's trip retracing the Lewis and Clark expedition -- might be expected to choose for his house.

Except that this house is the U.S. ambassador's residence in Dublin, Mr. Rooney is the ambassador, and the painting, by artist Robert Griffing, "shows the Indians on the very spot where Three Rivers Stadium would one day stand," he told a visitor proudly.

Talk about a man who knows how to multitask: Even as Mr. Rooney has one foot firmly planted in Dublin, as the top U.S. diplomat in Ireland, he has the other firmly planted in Pittsburgh, still de facto head of that country known as Steelers Nation.

That is, when he and his wife, Patricia, aren't visiting all 32 counties in Ireland, north and south -- the first ambassador to do so -- and hosting poets (Billy Collins and Seamus Heaney earlier this month), University of Pittsburgh basketball players, Irish farmers and experts on social media and renewable energy -- not to mention creating an annual Rooney Prize for Irish Literature to recognize young Irish writers .

It's all part of the job, which may or may not end after three years this July.

The ambassador's son, Steelers president Art Rooney II, said in January that his father might be returning to Pittsburgh for good this summer.

Three years is the usual time frame for ambassadorial postings, but Dan Rooney, in an interview May 19 firmly declined to say when he would be leaving.

"I serve at the pleasure of the president," he said.

And, it seems, he has served with pleasure since his appointment July 1, 2009, although when asked about the qualities that make him an effective diplomat -- after years of running the most respected organization in the National Football League -- Mr. Rooney diplomatically declined to reveal too much.

The weeks after his appointment by President Barack Obama were "a whirlwind," he recalled. There were CIA and State Department briefings, and both he and his wife had to attend a "school" to learn protocol, seating arrangements and other subtle tools of diplomacy.

"I learned to listen more," Mr. Rooney said, a somewhat preposterous statement for a man who practically defines the word self-effacing. "But I always say you just have to be yourself."

History of involvement

Mr. Rooney is clearly relishing the opportunity to live not just in his ancestral homeland -- his roots are in Newry, County Down, just over the border in Northern Ireland -- but to make a difference in the Irish political and economic travails that have preoccupied him for decades.

Even as the Steelers were winning Super Bowls in the 1970s, Mr. Rooney found himself watching events unfold in Northern Ireland with increasing alarm, as sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants -- known as "The Troubles" -- was in full roar.

In 1975, at the urging of his brothers, who had visited Northern Ireland, "I went myself up there to Derry and met John Hume."

Charismatic yet unpretentious, Mr. Hume was a founder and leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party in Northern Ireland. He was widely regarded as the first political leader who seriously sought American help for peace and reconciliation, a nationalist who saw that fighting the British military was, in itself, a losing battle.

Working with Sen. Edward Kennedy, House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill and later with President Bill Clinton, Mr. Hume would eventually win a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. And at a first meeting, Mr. Hume formed an instant connection with Mr. Rooney, who, shocked by what he saw, returned to the United States and teamed up with Tony O'Reilly, then president and CEO of H.J. Heinz Co., to start the American Ireland Fund in 1976.

Mr. O'Reilly, who has been knighted by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, said he was startled, after coming to the U.S. and to Heinz, to see how little cohesion there was in the American private sector for helping Ireland, "and Dan couldn't agree more."

"There was this sense that Americans were Irish for one day, St. Patrick's Day, and for the remainder of the year that was forgotten," Mr. O'Reilly said in an interview from his home in France.

"We decided to marshal our forces to create an organization that spoke for Ireland in a civil way, that believed in a process of dialogue and discussion."

First, Mr. Rooney checked with his father, Art Rooney Sr., the legendary founder of the Steelers, "who hadn't gotten involved in that sort of thing," he says. Art Rooney told him to go ahead, "and strongly supported me after that."

Today, the organization is part of The Worldwide Ireland Funds, which operate in a dozen countries and have raised more than $430 million for cultural, philanthropic and peace-building organizations that support innovative work in Ireland.

Dan Rooney came back every year to Northern Ireland after that, Mr. Hume's wife, Pat, said in an interview last week in Derry, near where she and her husband and family still live -- a neighborhood where snipers once commandeered houses to shoot at British army posts.

She and Patricia Rooney became friends, and even when the shootings and bombings mostly stopped after the peace accords of 1998, "the Rooneys didn't forget Derry. Dan and Patricia are the most down-to-earth, unpretentious people. And they always brought Steelers T-shirts for our five boys," she said.

Focus on economy

The post of ambassador to Ireland has its trappings and perks -- and surely living in Dublin is a perk, in the middle of a 1,700-acre park, in one of the most beautiful of all American embassy residences. But it has not been one of the more coveted jobs in U.S. diplomacy.

Once the latest chapter in the centuries-long "Troubles" ignited in 1968, Northern Ireland became largely off-limits, since, as it was part of the United Kingdom, it was within the purview of the U.S. ambassador to Britain.

Some broke that rule. Jean Kennedy Smith traveled to Northern Ireland frequently during her time as ambassador in the mid-1990s, with the tacit approval of her brother, Edward, who as U.S. senator was working closely with Mr. Hume and other moderate Northern Ireland political figures to try to broker a peace agreement.

But in the 1970s, William Shannon, President Jimmy Carter's representative, went there only once, his wife, Elizabeth, recalled

"It was very hard for him," she said of her late husband, who had spent much of his career on The New York Times editorial board and authored the first definitive book on the Irish-American relationship. "He went up once, and quickly realized it was the only time he'd be able to go."

Mr. Rooney doesn't have that problem, although security in Northern Ireland is still a concern, which means his trips there are kept to a minimum.

Instead, he spends most of his time focusing on economic development for the island, whose much ballyhooed "Celtic Tiger" of an economy collapsed in 2008. It continues to face treacherous times ahead, although Mr. Rooney is -- publicly at least -- upbeat, noting that Ireland's gross domestic product has grown this year.

"There are positive developments," he says. "It's slow, it's going to take some time, but it will be all right."

He has done what he can: helping work on an agreement to allow beef exports from Ireland to the U.S. and, in an effort to boost American investment, asking Heinz's current CEO, William R. Johnson, to come to Dublin on June 7 to deliver a keynote speech on boosting Irish competitiveness.

But that's what ambassadors do, or at least what this one does, as well as serving as the eyes and ears of the president. Mr. Rooney was roundly criticized by some of his politically conservative fan base and fellow team owners for supporting and campaigning for Mr. Obama. It didn't bother him. Mr. Obama told him he had a better time in Ireland last year than on any foreign trip he has had as president -- "and he told me he's coming back again after November," Mr. Rooney said with a satisfied smile.

But that's what ambassadors do.

Keeping it Irish

In a small study off the main hall of the embassy residence, Mr. Rooney proudly points to a map with several dozen pins in it -- mostly green, for every county he has visited, but some red ones, too, which mark the places where he has held town meetings with Irish citizens, to listen to their concerns. At one in Dundalk near the Northern Ireland border, Irish from both north and south attended.

"My goal," he said, "is to bring the Irish in, to include the Irish in anything we do."

For someone so calm and unassuming -- he can be seen in a video standing quietly in the background when Mr. Obama famously downed some Guinness during a visit to his ancestral town of Moneygall last year -- Mr. Rooney knows what he's doing.

"Dan Rooney is used to control and command, to public exposure, to big crowds," said Mr. O'Reilly. "He's a great gentleman who is not given to polemics. He's not a firebrand. He listens very well and that empowers the people he is talking to."

The most frequently asked question Mr. Rooney gets from the Irish is about undocumented relatives in the United States, a problem that still hasn't found a solution. But he also notes, with some wonder, that businessmen frequently ask him about the Rooney Rule, an NFL requirement he pushed through that requires that a minority candidate be interviewed for any head coaching job vacancy.

"At a recent conference, they were just burning with questions about that," he said.

And yet, in Dublin, there are no Steelers bars, although some pubs occasionally show an NFL game.

"Newry Man's Team Scoops Super Bowl Title," noted the Irish News in 2006, when the Steelers won its fifth championship.

Told about this, Mr. Rooney and his wife, whose parents came from Cloontia in County Mayo, burst out laughing. But there is a certain irony that the man who presides over one of the most storied franchises in U.S. sports finds himself ambassador to a sports-mad country that couldn't care less about American football.

But there are American touches by the Rooneys to the graceful, Georgian-style residence built in 1776, expanded during the 19th century and leased to the U.S. in 1949 for 999 years.

An annual flag football game on the embassy residence lawn for the past two Fourth of July celebrations has drawn thousands of people. And after it snowed 8 inches one winter, Mr. Rooney bought the embassy residence that staple of Pittsburgh households: a snowblower.

"It hasn't snowed since," Patricia Rooney noted.

Asked what he would do when goes back, Mr. Rooney doesn't say, "but I'll be involved in some way."

Taking this job meant letting go of the Steelers a little -- but maybe not all that much. The ambassador, who travels to Washington frequently enough for conferences and consultations, has been spotted at plenty of Steelers games in the past three years.

"Even when I would have preferred not to be spotted," he says with a grin.

This quiet man of Pittsburgh will, for now, remain in Dublin, his feet planted firmly in both worlds -- even if, like the Native Americans in that front hall painting, he treads lightly from one to the other.

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Mackenzie Carpenter: First Published May 27, 2012 4:00 AM


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