Wednesday, 19 Jun 2024

‘I’m Comin’ Home’: Biden Takes a Tour of His Irish Heritage

President Biden climbed the stone stairs of an ancient castle in the Republic of Ireland on Wednesday and paused to look out toward an iron-gray Irish Sea, where his maternal great-great-great grandfather set sail for America in 1849.

On the ground, bagpipers puffed out an original song, called “A Biden Return,” to celebrate the 80-year-old’s latest visit to his motherland. Irish rain drizzled down the president’s baseball cap.

In other words, this was Peak Joe Biden.

“It feels wonderful!” Mr. Biden shouted down from the castle toward a group of reporters. “It feels like I’m comin’ home.”

Mr. Biden’s ancestral tour began after a blink-of-an-eye trip to Belfast, Northern Ireland, earlier in the day to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, a peace accord that brought an end to sectarian violence in the region.

But neither Mr. Biden nor his senior advisers were interested in discussing the ongoing political fray in Northern Ireland or any other global matters, including the war in Ukraine.

Instead, the president trained his gaze on the past — specifically, his Irish heritage, which has shaped his public identity and political outlook.

“The Irish are the only people in the world, in my view, who are actually nostalgic about the future,” Mr. Biden said. “Think about it. It’s because, more than anything in my experience, hope is what beats in the heart of all people, particularly in the heart of the Irish. Hope. Every action is about hope.”

Mr. Biden came here wanting to learn more about his ties to the Finnegan and Blewitt families, his maternal clan from County Louth and County Mayo, whose descendants settled near Scranton, Pa. (Ballina in County Louth, Mr. Biden pointed out on Wednesday, is a sister city of Scranton.)

Those Finnegans and Blewitts raised a future American president on a steady diet of family lore, Irish poetry and a scrappy sense of pride: “‘Remember, Joey, the best drop of blood in ya is Irish,’” he said his grandfather told him as a child.

His family identity has been central to his legacy, but it has also, at times, been his biggest political vulnerability.

What to Know About ‘the Troubles’

A history of violence. “The Troubles” is a term used to describe a decades-long sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, a region that was carved out as a Protestant-majority enclave under British sovereignty when the Republic of Ireland became self-governing in the 1920s. The conflict pitted those who wanted unity with Ireland — mostly Catholic, and known as nationalists and republicans — against those who wanted the territory to remain part of the United Kingdom — mostly Protestant, and known as unionists and loyalists.

How ‘the Troubles’ began. A civil rights march in the city of Derry on Oct. 5, 1968, is often referred to as a catalyst for the Troubles. The demonstration was banned after unionists announced plans for a rival march, but the organizers resolved to go ahead with it. When officers from the Protestant-dominated police force surrounded the demonstrators with batons drawn and sprayed the crowd with a water cannon, rioting erupted.

Simmering tensions. Centuries of disaffection quickly turned to armed revolt spearheaded by the underground Irish Republican Army and its political wing, Sinn Fein, which cast themselves as champions of the Roman Catholic minority. Loyalist paramilitary groups challenged the I.R.A., supposedly to protect a Protestant majority, injecting one more element of violence into the war.

Bloody Sunday. On Jan. 30, 1972, thousands of mostly Catholic marchers took to the streets of the Bogside district of Derry in opposition to a new policy of detention without trial. British soldiers opened fire, killing 14 protesters. The events became one of the most infamous episodes of the Troubles, known as Bloody Sunday.

A far-reaching conflict. The conflict had all the appearances of a civil war, with roadblocks, bomb blasts, sniper fire and the suspension of civil rights. Bombings also spread to the rest of Britain, and British troops hunted down I.R.A. members as far afield as Gibraltar. The I.R.A. drew significant support from groups as disparate as Irish Americans in the United States and the Libyan dictator Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

How the Troubles ended. The conflict came formally to an end in 1998 with a settlement known as the Good Friday Agreement. As part of the deal, a new form of regional government was created to share power between those who wanted the region to remain part of the United Kingdom and those who sought a united Ireland.

The conflict’s long shadow. Even after the Good Friday Agreement brought a form of peace, some violence has persisted. The shared executive authority set up in the 1998 accord has also seen repeated suspensions because of intractable disputes between the two sides and, most recently, the fallout from Brexit.

Hunter Biden, the president’s 53-year-old son, whose financial dealings are the subject of a House Oversight Committee investigation, traveled to Ireland with his father aboard Air Force One, even as prominent Republicans in the United States criticized the president for taking the trip in the first place.

In an interview on Fox News on Tuesday night, former President Donald J. Trump accused his successor of not paying attention to the world’s problems.

“The world is exploding around us,” Mr. Trump claimed. “You could end up in a third world war and this guy is going to be in Ireland.”

If the criticism reached Mr. Biden, he did not let it show. During the days leading up to the trip, the White House fielded several questions about who would be traveling with him, for how long and at what cost. Officials said that Mr. Biden was maintaining the tradition of presidents, from Kennedy to Obama, who had made similar trips before.

How Times reporters cover politics. We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.

In the end, Mr. Biden kept the family contingent lean compared with the group that accompanied him on his six-day tour of Ireland as vice president in 2016, according to aides. In County Louth back then, Mr. Biden toured the Kilwirra Church and Cemetery, where some of his ancestors were baptized, and stopped for lunch with relatives, including several grandchildren, at Fitzpatrick’s Restaurant and Pub. He visited Lily Finnegan’s Pub, which, officials said, was owned by some distant relatives at one point.

One notable Biden was missing this time: Jill Biden, the first lady, who stayed behind because she had to teach, according to Elizabeth Alexander, her communications director. Dr. Biden does not always attend Biden family outings, including her husband’s 2016 visit.

As Mr. Biden left Washington for the latest trip, he told reporters he had decided to take “two of my family members who hadn’t been there before.” The president’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens — who did visit Ireland with Mr. Biden in 2016 — also made the trip.

Brother and sister are so proud of their Irish heritage that, when Mr. Biden was a candidate for vice president, Ms. Biden Owens lobbied the Secret Service on his behalf to change its protocol for code names for the people it protects. Mr. Biden’s was supposed to start with “K,” but his sister persuaded officials to use one that nodded to his Irish heritage: Celtic.

“For President Biden, Ireland is not just a place where his ancestors lived — it is deeply ingrained in his identity,” said Shailagh Murray, a former senior adviser to Mr. Biden. “His Irishness is interwoven alongside his faith, his fierce devotion to his family and his empathy for people who are struggling.”

On Wednesday, Ms. Biden Owens and Hunter trailed the president as he toured a firehouse, a pub and a deli. At one point, Hunter held an umbrella to shield his father from the rain.

At an earlier meeting with U.S. Embassy workers, he told Mr. Biden, “You’re supposed to do the rope line, Dad,” a reference to supporters who had lined up to greet the president.

“I’m supposed to do the rope line?” his father asked.

“Just to say hi to everybody,” Hunter replied.

“To get to return as president and see the warm response from the people of his family’s homeland probably feels like a powerful full circle moment for the Bidens,” Kate Bedingfield, Mr. Biden’s former communications director, said in a message.

Hunter, Mr. Biden’s sister, distant relatives and friends joined the jamboree through the Irish countryside as Mr. Biden’s motorcade traveled from Dublin to Dundalk. At Carlingford Castle in County Louth, the president took a tour with the former professional rugby player Rob Kearney, his fifth cousin once removed, and with Micheál Martin, the minister for foreign affairs and minister of defense of Ireland.

Perhaps no modern president has embraced his Irish American lineage as enthusiastically as Mr. Biden. “You know who designed the White House? An Irishman!” he said proudly in remarks at Ulster University in Belfast earlier in the day.

Pride in his heritage has been instilled in him since his childhood, when his father, Joseph R. Biden Sr., experienced financial hardship and moved the family into his maternal grandfather’s house — one crowded with Finnegans and Blewitts. They were faithful, proud Catholics, and practiced grudge holders.

In his memoir, Mr. Biden wrote that one of his aunts approached him and told him that their dislike for his father was not personal. “Your father’s not a bad man,” Mr. Biden wrote that his Aunt Gertie told him. “He’s just English. But he’s a good man.”

As president, Mr. Biden has used a humble moniker to sign letters, calling himself “one son of Catherine Eugenia Biden,” a reference to a mother who instructed her Catholic son never to kneel to the queen of England.

At different points on Wednesday, Mr. Biden indulged in a type of lore specific to him: long-winded and sometimes rose-colored memories of the Senate. When a child asked what was the key to success , Mr. Biden recounted — for several minutes — how as a young senator he had recoiled from the views of Senator Jesse Helms, who he said was “not very crazy about African Americans.”

He said he later learned it was important not to question people’s motives when he found out that Mr. Helms had adopted a child with special needs.

“If you question their motive, then you never get to be able to agree,” Mr. Biden said.

The next person asked how the presidential dogs are doing.

“Doing well,” Mr. Biden replied. (There is only one presidential dog.)

The president ended his day in the wood-paneled dining room of the Windsor Bar and Restaurant in Dundalk, surrounded by distant relatives. As he spoke, he asked Hunter to stand for a round of applause.

“When you’re here,” Mr. Biden said, looking around the room, “you wonder why anyone would ever want to leave.”

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