Monday, 23 Nov 2020

US election results: Biden of Ballina – Ireland toasts its 23rd US president

It’s hard to know who’s more famous around Ballina in County Mayo; Joe Biden, Joe Blewitt or Joe Blewitt’s van.

The white VW Crafter is emblazoned with an image of Mr Biden, and the slogan “Joe Biden for the White House and Joe Blewitt for your house”.

It’s the signature calling card for the heating and plumber contractor, who happens to be the president-elect’s third cousin, once removed.

“Joe is my dad’s third cousin,” says Mr Blewitt. “Dad always knew about it, but the media started tracing it when he was going for vice president, and it really took off.”

The two Joes first met in 2016, when the then vice president Biden, who is five-eighths Irish, first visited one of his ancestral homes on the west coast of Ireland.

“We had lunch with him that day,” recalls Mr Blewitt. “It was great. He’s a lovely man, a really down-to-earth guy.

“He’s just a big family man. He’s had a lot of tragedy in his life. I’ve small kids myself and he just said to me to grab them and cuddle them as often as you can. That just shows the kind of man he is.”

Mr Blewitt and other family members visited the White House in January 2017 at Mr Biden’s invitation, to witness him receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama.

Later that year, no longer vice president, Mr Biden crossed the Atlantic for another visit to Ballina, turning the sod on the local hospice.

“It’s not a political tact,” says local councillor Mark Duffy, of Joe Biden’s passion for his Irish roots.

“He came here in a personal capacity as well. Ballina was already twinned with his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, so there are really strong connections there.”

Those connections began in the dark, famine-ravaged days of 1850, when like many Irishmen before him, Joe Biden’s great-great-great grandfather Edward Blewitt left Ballina for the US.

An accomplished man, Edward worked for the Ordnance Survey and the well-worn local joke is that he has now really put Ballina on the map.

“It’s a beautiful story in terms of an emigrant leaving during desperate times here in Ballina, famine times,” says Mr Duffy.

“Now, one of his descendants have gone on to become the US president, so it’s just a beautiful immigrant story, and that’s something we’re all very proud of.”

They’re proud too on the other side of the country, on the Cooley peninsula in Co Louth. Here, Mr Biden’s great-great-great grandfather John Finnegan married a Mary Kearney in 1813.

Both families were from humble, subsistence-farming backgrounds, but the Kearneys found an ingenious way to raise extra money: scavenging and selling washed-up seaweed as fertiliser to other farmers.

Their son Owen Finnegan left for the US in the 1840s, meaning that the new US president has not one but two Irish ancestral homes. He took the time to visit Cooley on his 2016 trip to Ireland.

The ‘Irish’ in the Oval Office

22 US presidents have claimed some form of Irish heritage. Here are just a few:

Barack Obama – Moneygall, Co Offaly

Ronald Reagan – Ballyporeen, Co Tipperary

Richard Nixon – Timahoe, Co Kildare

John F Kennedy – Dunganstown, Co Wexford

A Biden boost for local tourism

Tourism bosses in Co Mayo and Co Louth will be hoping for a Biden boost if and when international tourists return to Ireland. But, in Dublin, the Irish government also has its fingers crossed for a more fruitful relationship with the White House.

Privately, figures at a very senior level in government have told Sky News they’re “delighted” with Mr Biden’s electoral triumph, which sees a proud Irish-American win the presidency – albeit not actually take office – as Brexit negotiations come to their denouement.

In September, Mr Biden tweeted that “We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit. Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”

That’s music to diplomatic ears in Dublin, and could well weigh heavily on the minds of British negotiators in the days ahead. However, others say that the president-elect’s Irish heritage should not be overplayed. While he will innately be more sympathetic to Irish, and EU, concerns over Brexit, it is far from the top of his list of priorities as he tries to heal his divided nation.

Statecraft is also far from the minds of those in Ballina. Standing proudly beside a framed photo of himself with the town’s illustrious visitor, publican Derek Leonard is looking forward to what they regard as the inevitable presidential visit.

“The excitement is building,” he says, “you can feel it.”

He doesn’t care that the teetotaller Joe Biden will be unlikely to hoist a pint of the black stuff skyward, as predecessors have done.

“It’s just unbelievable for Ballina, for the Irish-Americans, for the Irish here. It’s immeasurable. The realisation is just setting in that we have a US president who hails from Ballina.”

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