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'The Most Irish of All American Presidents' Ends Ireland Visit

US President Joe Biden speaks outside St. Muredach's Cathedral in Ballina, Ireland, April 14, 2023.
US President Joe Biden speaks outside St. Muredach's Cathedral in Ballina, Ireland, April 14, 2023.

"Remember, Joey, the best drop of blood in you is Irish," President Joe Biden said, quoting his grandfather.

Such fierce ethnic pride from "the most Irish of all American presidents," as the Taoiseach describes him, was guaranteed to be a crowd-pleaser, and Biden knew it.

Biden displayed an endless supply of that pride during a three-day visit that culminated in a Friday night speech in Ballina, County Mayo, where his paternal ancestors once lived. The speech was the last item on his schedule before he returned to Washington.

"Being here feels like coming home," he told the crowd of 27,000, diving into his family background stretching back before the Irish famine of the mid-1800s.

The Irish "always believe in a better tomorrow," he said. "Our strength is something that overcomes everyday hardships."

Biden's love of his Irish roots and, in turn, the affection shown in the rapturous applause of Irish lawmakers listening to his speech to parliament and in the cheering crowds lined up waiting for his motorcade in blustery weather, could also reach another audience — American voters.

"Ireland is one of the few countries where an American president can guarantee an uncritical welcome," said Brendan O'Leary, the Lauder professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

This visit, designed to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, is especially important. The 1998 peace deal helped end 30 years of bloody conflict over whether Northern Ireland should unify with Ireland or remain part of the United Kingdom.

By showing the U.S. is playing a constructive role in sustaining peace, Biden is sending an important message to Americans, in contrast to less successful foreign policy outcomes such as the chaotic U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, O'Leary told VOA.

Biden's Republican Party rivals had a different view. On Tucker Carlson's show on Fox News, former President Donald Trump slammed Biden's tour of his ancestral homeland.

"The world is exploding around us. You could end up in a third world war and this guy is going to be in Ireland!" he said Tuesday night.

Foreign policy credits aside, O'Leary said Biden clearly represents his Irish American experience as typical of the American middle-class experience.

"I think that facilitates his 'Ordinary Joe' campaigning," he added.

'My plan is to run again'

Speaking to reporters before departing Ireland on Friday, Biden said he would announce his reelection bid "relatively soon."

"I told you, my plan is to run again," he said.

His campaign will again center on his middle-class agenda, a message deeply interwoven with his Irish roots and working-class family background.

The latest U.S. government census indicates that about 10% of Americans, 31 million people, claim Irish ancestry. In presidential elections of the past few decades, Irish Americans traditionally backed Democratic candidates until 2016, when Trump won about half of their support.

But more than ancestries, elections are determined by programs and values. In his 50 years in politics, Biden, who says he was raised "with a fierce pride in our Irish ancestry," often highlights the egalitarianism and communal solidarity captured in his family's creed — that everyone is your equal.

"I don't know that a lot of other politicians would say something like that," said Timothy Meagher, a former associate professor at Catholic University of America who studies ethnic history focusing on Irish Americans.

"There's a kind of sense, from him, of an identification with working class people, with regular people," Meagher told VOA. "That follows, I think, from that kind of Irish heritage, that we're all in this together."

Other values include the dignity of work, which Biden has linked to legislative calls for job-creating policies that enable workers to earn a living wage, form unions and receive paid family and medical leave.

His outlook on immigration is also imbued by his Irishness. On at least two occasions during his trip, he told the story of how his maternal ancestor, shoemaker Owen Finnegan, emigrated to New York in 1849, about the same time as former President Barack Obama's maternal ancestor Joseph Kearney, also a shoemaker from a nearby county.

"Isn't that amazing?" he said to reporters Thursday. "The idea that they both would seek a new life and think that their great-great-grandsons would end up being president of the United States is remarkable."

It's the story of how poor immigrants can live the American dream, said Eoin Drea, a senior researcher at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies. "I think that's how President Biden views his family's transition into where they are now," he told VOA.


Biden's origin story shapes how he understands the country's psyche, often repeating what he said he told Chinese leader Xi Jinping, that the United States can be defined in one word: possibilities.

His optimism could resonate with another group of voters — naturalized citizens and descendants of immigrants. In the 2020 presidential race, more than 23 million immigrants, comprising about 10% of the electorate, were eligible to vote, according to a Pew Survey based on census data.

The cynical view is that political expediency motivates Biden to lean into his image of a scrappy son of a working-class family from Scranton, Pennsylvania. But for the endless "Bidenisms" and quotes of his parents that always begins with "Joey…," Meagher said Biden comes across as genuine.

"There is a sort of politics to it, but it's one that he seems to fit into naturally," he said.

Through his rhetoric and legislative proposals, Biden has woven a consistent theme in his first term — build the economy from the bottom up and middle out by creating jobs, including for people who don't have college degrees.

Whether that will carry him to a second term remains to be seen. Especially if he again faces Trump, the leading Republican contender, according to a recent poll.

In 2020, Trump's nativist "Make America Great Again" message secured him 66% of the votes from white men without a four-year college degree, compared with Biden's 31%.