President Barack Obama said after a White House meeting with Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen Wednesday that the United States has been shaped by the contributions of Irish-Americans.

Obama continued a St. Patrick's Day tradition by hosting Cowen in the Oval Office.

"Thirty-six million Americans claim Irish ancestry; I'm sure more do on St. Patrick's Day," Obama said after the meeting. "America has been shaped culturally, politically, economically by the incredible contributions of Irish-Americans."

Both Obama and Cowen hailed the legacy of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts who died last year, and his work toward peace in Northern Ireland.

At the White House, Obama thanked Cowen for Ireland's help in training police in Afghanistan and letting U.S. military flights use Irish facilities.

"The Irish government punches above its weight on a whole host of critical issues," the president said.

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