President Joe Biden is spending most of his trip to Ireland this week exploring his family’s roots, from the shoemaker who sailed from Newry in 1849 in search of a better life in America to the brick-seller in Ballina who sold 28,000 bricks to pay for his own family’s passage to the US.
Yet as his official meetings Thursday demonstrate, the Ireland he is visiting this week is a distant cry from the place his ancestors left so long ago. It’s even far removed from the place President John F. Kennedy – the last Catholic president – visited 60 years ago, when the Church remained at the center of power in the country and economic development was only beginning to take hold.
Now a thriving European economy, with a major technology sector and among the highest per capita GDP figures in the entire European Union, Ireland hardly resembles the country many Irish Americans still hold in the popular imagination.
At moments, that has appeared to include Biden himself.
“You hear about all these stories about what it was like back in Ireland,” he said Thursday after meeting the Irish president, referring to his own grandparents and great-grandparents who relayed memories passed on to them of Ireland, despite never visiting themselves.
A day earlier, Biden jokingly questioned why his predecessors left Ireland for a better life as he visited a local market and deli in Dundalk.
“I don’t know why the hell my ancestors left here. It’s beautiful,” he said.
Of course, they left because of a devastating famine in the 1840s, a fact Biden acknowledged later during the first of two stops on a search for his family’s ancestry.
Welcomed enthusiastically to the town of Dundalk, Biden basked in the welcome of his people, many of whom waited for hours in cold drizzle to catch a glimpse of the most Irish of American presidents.
Bagpipers wrote a song specially for his arrival, and played it as he toured a stone castle from which he could see the port where his great-great-great-grandfather departed for America in 1849.
“It feels like I’m coming home,” Biden told reporters as he looked out over the water. Later, he spoke to a collection of distant cousins at a pub.
Biden’s four-day visit to Ireland is hardly heavy with policy, though he did spent a night in Belfast commemorating 25 years of the Good Friday Agreement.
Instead, his trip has the feeling of a family spring break. He has brought along his sister Valerie and son Hunter, with whom he toured ancestral sites on Wednesday.
Hunter Biden has been subject to investigations by House Republicans, who allege he was involved in shady foreign business practices. Hunter Biden denies the allegations. On the trip this week, however, he has acted as a steadying presence for his father, helping him at moments to navigate the enthusiastic crowds.
Much of Biden’s time in Ireland will be spent looking to the past. The White House distributed a multi-page genealogical table detailing his ancestry on the island. And Biden has sought to identify an essential Irishness as he connects with his roots.
“The Irish are the only people in the world, in my view, who are actually nostalgic about the future,” he said Tuesday. “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.”
Still, for at least a day, he will be focused on present-day Ireland.
In his talks with Irish leaders Thursday, Biden is expected to discuss a number of global issues, including the war in Ukraine. Ireland has remained officially neutral in foreign conflicts since the 1930s, but the war in Europe has tested that stance. The country has taken in more than 75,000 Ukrainian refugees and condemned Russia for its invasion.
He’s also likely to continue discussions that began Wednesday in Belfast about the Good Friday Agreement, as leaders work to restore the power sharing government that’s been paralyzed for more than year over a dispute related to Brexit trade rules.
Over the course of the day, he’s also planning to participate in a tree planting ceremony and ring the Peace Bell, which was unveiled at the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday accord and symbolizes reconciliation between the warring factions from The Troubles. The bell is suspended between two oak trunks, one from Northern Ireland and one from Dublin.
Later, Biden will address the Irish Parliament in a speech expected to touch on the close ties between the US and Ireland, both political and personal. And he’ll end the day at a banquet dinner held at Dublin Castle, once the seat of the British government’s administration in Ireland.
Through all of his formal engagements, Biden will engage a country that has become an unexpected stalwart of progressive liberalism, even as right-wing populism has been on the rise elsewhere.
In 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote; the current Taoiseach, or prime minister, Leo Varadkar is gay. He is also Ireland’s first ethnic minority to become head of government.
Three years later, Ireland voted decisively to end what, at the time, was one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the world. For decades, Irish women seeking to end a pregnancy were forced to travel to England or risk an illegal, often unsafe abortion in Ireland.
Taken together, the two votes swept aside decades of church authority in Ireland, once a stronghold of conservative Catholicism. The church found its credibility badly weakened after a series of scandals, including abuses of unwed mothers in the so-called Magdalene laundries and abuse of children by pedophile priests.
The Irish identity Biden is exploring this week with visits to two ancestral hometowns is intrinsically linked to his own Catholicism. Later in the week, he’s expected to visit the Our Lady of Knock shrine, the site of an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1879, and deliver a speech in front of St. Muredach’s Cathedral, which his great-great-great-grandfather sold bricks to in order to fund his family’s passage to the United States.
Biden pairs his Irishness and Catholic faith frequently when referencing his roots and upbringing in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
“Every time I walk out of my Irish Catholic grandfather’s home up in Scranton, Pennsylvania – his name was Ambrose Finnegan – and he’d yell, ‘Joey, keep the faith,’” Biden said last month, repeating a memory he often recalls about his childhood.