In three years as U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, Dan Rooney tried to convince President Barack Obama to come out of the rain into an Irish pub, became chummy with the Chinese ambassador and was thrown out of the New York Giants press box.
If politics make strange bedfellows, then diplomats are not far behind.
"It was really a tremendous experience," Rooney said earlier this week, back in his former role as chairman of the Steelers after three years as a foreign service officer in Dublin.
He convinced the initial skeptics that a lifelong football man could become an effective diplomat in the country of his ancestors.
"People were concerned," Rooney recalled. "How is this going to work? But it really turned out to be excellent."
By the time his duties ended in December, Rooney became the first ambassador to visit all 32 counties in Ireland, including the North, with his wife, Patricia, by his side. He held a town hall meeting during each visit. The Rooneys came from Newry, a Northern Ireland town in County Armagh, near the Irish Republic border town of Dundalk. As fans of the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens might say, those two towns just didn't like each other during The Troubles, the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland.
Rooney held one of his most memorable town hall meetings there.
"There was always real trouble," Rooney said of the Newry-Dundalk relationship during the bad times. "In fact, there are some lingering things. The peace over there now, that was another goal [of mine] that I would say was to make things better. It is much better. The one thing that the people of Ireland, both sides, the whole island, realize that they don't want these troubles anymore. They express themselves. It's not like it was in the past where they would shoot people for talking. It's really been good. There is still economic problems, but it has turned in the right direction. The problem is jobs, like here.
"The first one we had was at Newry and Dundalk. They are two pretty good cities that are doing things. That really worked out well. They were happy to see me. They were in on discussions. It was a give and take with them. In fact, the mayor of Dundalk, when he was finished said, 'Ambassador, can you come back here every week?' "
Rooney accompanied Obama when the president visited the roots of his Irish American mother in May 2011. It rained heavily and, at one point, Rooney turned to the president.
"I said, 'Mr. President, let's go in this pub.' He said, 'No, I have to talk to all these people. These are my people.' There were 100,000 people up and down the streets. You couldn't believe how big it was."
Rooney lost track of how many miles he accumulated flying between Ireland and the United States. Many of those trips enabled him to watch his football team play. A special one was to see the Steelers face the New York Giants in their new Metlife Stadium in the 2010 preseason. The Rooneys and Maras, the family that owns the Giants, are longtime friends. As he often does, Rooney left his owners box to visit the press box to chat with some writers. A security guard in the press box noticed he did not have press credentials.
"They said, who are you?" Rooney recalled.
The guard asked him to leave, and Rooney complied, which led to a good chuckle
Things did not always go smoothly in Ireland, either. His immediate boss was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"Secretary Clinton would tell me, 'I want you to go to the Irish government and tell them this is how we feel. We hope they will be on our side.' There were many times that they did not agree. Sometimes, they wouldn't agree, and it would end, and then you had to go back."
Rooney acknowledged that it often was like a gentle twisting of arms at an NFL owners meeting.
"There are a lot of similarities in dealing with people."
And the Ireland experience?
"I am really pleased. I know that I was away from the team and Pittsburgh. My time got busier. The first year I think I was at eight or nine games. I really didn't count. As time went on, [it became more difficult]. For instance two years ago, [Sept. 11, 2011], we were playing Baltimore. I couldn't get back. People said you had to get back. In fact, they even started talking about getting a private jet. I said I don't want to do that. So I just said I just can't make it.
"I had to make a speech. It was good. We had the Irish government there. We had a lot of ambassadors from other countries. Patricia read a poem called 'The Names' by a poet from the U.S., Billy Collins. She really did a fine job. What I am saying to you is I think we accomplished what we went there for, everybody did. They all said I did a great job.
" I was called upon to do a lot of things. We had receptions at the residence like you wouldn't believe. We always kept it going and kept things going. Patricia being involved in education, she got involved in a lot of educational things. And I went on and ran the mission. It was a big thing."Steelers