Biden's ancestral hometowns prepare warm Irish welcome

Excitement is building in Ballina, a small Irish town that was home to some of President Joe Biden's ancestors

Jill Lawless
Saturday 08 April 2023 07:30 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Joe Blewitt is just about the busiest man in Ballina. His phone rings constantly with calls from locals and the world's media as he prepares to welcome a relative — U.S. President Joe Biden.

Biden is scheduled to travel to Ireland next week, with a stop in Ballina, the town from which one of his great-great grandfathers left for the United States in 1850. Blewitt, a distant cousin who first met Biden when he came to town as vice president in 2016, said the U.S. leader pledged to return once he'd won the presidency.

“He said, ‘I’m going to come back into Ballina.’ And sure to God he’s going to come back into Ballina,” Blewitt said. “His Irish roots are really deep in his heart.”

The 43-year-old plumber was among Biden relations invited to the White House for St. Patrick’s Day last month. He says it was a “surreal” experience that included a half-hour private meeting with the president.

“He’s a people person. He loves meeting the Irish people,” said Blewitt, who shares Biden’s high forehead — he says people joke that he looks like the president “from the mouth up.”

“The Irish people love him back.”

Buildings are getting a new coat of paint and American flags are being hung from shopfronts in Ballina, a bustling agricultural town of about 10,000 at the mouth of the River Moy in western Ireland that proclaims itself the nation's “salmon capital.”

There’s already a mural of a beaming Biden, erected in 2020 in the center of town. Many people from Ballina and the surrounding County Mayo moved to Pennsylvania in the 19th century. Ballina is twinned with Scranton, Biden’s hometown.

“I wouldn’t think there’s a family in Ballina that doesn’t have someone, some connection with the States,” said Anthony Heffernan, owner of Heffernan’s Fine Foods, where Biden had lunch with his local relatives during his 2016 visit.

“It was a fantastic day for Ballina,” Heffernan recalled.

“He was very keen to talk about the town — how it was, and how it is now. He was really connected with the area.”

The White House says Biden will visit Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Tuesday and Wednesday to mark 25 years since the Good Friday peace accord, before heading south to the Republic of Ireland, where he will address the Dublin parliament. In Ballina, he’s due to deliver a speech Friday in front of the 19th-century cathedral, which local lore says was built partly using bricks supplied by his great-great-great grandfather, Edward Blewitt, a brickmaker and civil engineer.

The Irish Family History Centre says Biden “is among the most ‘Irish’ of all U.S. Presidents” — 10 of his 16 great-great grandparents were from the Emerald Isle. All of them left for the U.S. during the Great Famine of the mid-19th century, which killed an estimated 1 million people.

Biden also plans to visit the Cooley Peninsula in County Louth, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) from Ballina on Ireland’s east coast. His great-grandfather, James Finnegan, left the mountainous, wind-battered peninsula as a child in 1850, one of more than a million Irish people who emigrated during the famine years.

“There’s a great sense of euphoria around the place. Everyone is asking ‘What’s happening, when’s he coming, where’s he going?’” said Andrea McKevitt, a local politician and distant Biden relative.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that the president would use his Irish trip to highlight “how his family history is part of that larger shared history” between the U.S. and Ireland.

The trip is also a reminder of the central role of Irish Americans in U.S. political life. Ireland has warmly welcomed American presidents since John F. Kennedy became the first to visit in 1963. Barack Obama got a jubilant reception in 2011 when he visited the tiny hamlet of Moneygall, home to one of his great-great-great grandfathers.

“My name is Barack Obama, of the Moneygall Obamas, and I’ve come home to find the apostrophe we lost somewhere along the way,” he joked to a crowd in Dublin.

More than 30 million Americans — almost one in 10 — claim some Irish ancestry. Richard Johnson, senior lecturer in U.S. politics at Queen Mary University of London, said Irish Americans no longer form the solidly Democrat voting bloc of decades gone by, but it’s still “good politics domestically for Americans to emphasize their Irish roots.”

“One of the reasons Irish identity resonates so much with Americans is that U.S. identity is based in part on the notion that the United States broke free from the British Empire and set its own course,” he said. “There is a kind of echo of that story that can be found in the Irish experience. It makes it feel like the Irish have shared a common experience of breaking out of British rule that I think is attractive to Americans.”

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Biden “has always been a friend of Ireland,” and the visit would be “an opportunity to welcome a great Irish-American president home.”

In Ballina, Blewitt said the town is getting ready to give Biden a rousing welcome.

“The streets will be packed,” he said. “It’ll be like another St. Patrick’s Day.”

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