WASHINGTON — It was a weekday evening in November, soon after Donald Trump’s surprising election victory, and the Mar-a-Lago elite filed into Trump’s exclusive Palm Beach club for dinner. As Brian Burns and his wife, Eileen, walked through the gold-plated lobby, the president-elect stopped Burns with an offer.
“He gave Eileen a hug and then said, “Brian, are you ready to go to Ireland?” Burns recounted.
Trump was offering Burns the Irish ambassadorship, choosing a Cambridge-born lawyer and businessman with deep roots in the Bay State and a long record of Irish-related philanthropy. Burns, the son of the closest adviser to Joseph P. Kennedy, the Kennedy family patriarch, said he was thrilled to accept the position, pending his formal nomination and Senate confirmation.
“I’m overjoyed because I’m the grandson of a poor immigrant from County Kerry,” he said. “It’s the fulfillment of a dream that I never thought would happen.”
Burns, who spent most of his professional career in San Francisco as a lawyer and businessman, is now the chairman of BF Enterprises, a financial holdings company. He spends most of his time in Palm Beach, Fla., but his family has owned a home in Falmouth for about 75 years.
Burns first met Trump about a decade ago, and later joined Mar-a-Lago, where he said his friendship with Trump and his family continued to grow. Burns has not been officially announced as Trump’s pick as ambassador to Ireland, but Trump told a New York Times reporter he intends to nominate Burns. The Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite Trump’s seemingly casual offer of a plum foreign-policy post to a Mar-a-Lago friend, Burns is considered well-qualified by people from both ends of the political spectrum.
“That gives me a little more confidence in Trump because Brian is a very good guy,” said former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, who attended Harvard Law School with Burns more than five decades ago. “Needless to say, I’m not a great fan of Trump, but at least he has some people around him that we can have some confidence in.”
If nominated and then confirmed by the Senate, Burns said one of his top priorities as ambassador would be to boost economic investment in Ireland. He said Brexit — the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union — has created a “terrific economic opportunity” for Americans in the country.
Representative Richard Neal of Massachusetts, a Democrat, said Burns is a “smart choice” to tackle Ireland’s challenges and strengthen the United States’ relationship with the country.
“A grandson of Irish immigrants, a long personal and professional association with Ireland, and an extraordinary record of philanthropy, he has the right background to do an outstanding job in Phoenix Park,” Neal, who is the cochairman of the Friends of Ireland Caucus, said in a statement. “I look forward to working closely with him and expect the Senate to quickly approve his nomination.”
Robert Mauro, the director of the Irish Institute at Boston College, said Burns’s most important task will be navigating the implications of Brexit. In particular, he said Ireland could be an effective gateway for Americans interested in pursuing business in European Union countries given the shared language and culture between the United States and Ireland, which remains a member of the EU.
He added that Burns has a positive reputation in Ireland and in the Irish-American community, which he said would help him work in the complex environment.
Born to a Democrat steeped in Massachusetts politics, Burns describes himself as liberal on social issues but conservative on the economy and foreign policy. A registered independent, he supported Trump throughout the 2016 election, but said the last inauguration he attended was for John F. Kennedy. He will not attend Trump’s swearing-in due to the cold Washington weather but plans to watch the ceremony and celebrate at Mar-a-Lago.
Burns attended the College of Holy Cross in Worcester and then Harvard Law School, where he graduated in 1960 with the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Dukakis, who called him a close friend.
Although Burns has not lived in the Boston area for decades, the 80-year-old has kept close ties to the area and the Irish community. Burns and his siblings established the John J. Burns Library at Boston College in 1986, which serves as the university’s home for rare books and special collections. The library is named after Burns’s father, who Burns said is “the source of energy and inspiration for almost everything I’ve done.”
Burns, who said he owns the largest collection of Irish art in America, was a principal benefactor of the first Irish Famine memorial in Cambridge, and he was inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame in 2013 along with Vice President Joe Biden.
Burns also played an instrumental role in the merging of two of the most prominent Irish philanthropies, the American Irish Foundation and the Ireland Fund, into The American Ireland Fund, which supports peace, art, and culture programs in Ireland. Burns, who was the youngest director of the American Irish Foundation, worked to combine the two organizations to maximize their impact.
“He did that in a classic diplomatic way by enhancing your sense of importance,” Bill McNally, the former chief executive of The American Ireland Fund, said about the merger. “Brian was very good at drawing that out in people in a honest way. He was always exuberant about possibilities.”
Although Burns’s nomination and confirmation have not been scheduled, Burns said he hopes to move to Ireland before St. Patrick’s Day in March. He added he plans to invite Trump to visit Ireland, where Trump operates a luxury hotel and golf course in Doonbeg, County Clare.
“President-elect Trump has a big investment on a lovely golf course on the west coast of Ireland,” he said. “My hope is he’ll accept our invitation.”