Ireland Readies a Warm Welcome for Biden, ‘the Most Irish’ President Since J.F.K.

When John F. Kennedy became the first serving U.S. president to visit Ireland, in 1963, he was hailed as a returning hero in New Ross, County Wexford, his family’s ancestral home.

Richard M. Nixon was met in 1970 with a few thrown eggs, but by otherwise friendly crowds, and toured the graves of his Quaker forebears in Kildare.

And four decades after that, Barack Obama retraced the steps of a great-great-great-grandfather from Moneygall, in County Offaly, joking that the Obamas had come “to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way.”

Like those presidents before him, when Joseph R. Biden Jr. visits Ireland next week, he will be doubly blessed — or inconvenienced, depending on your perspective — by family business. His busy five-day schedule includes not only meetings in Ireland and Northern Ireland, working to shore up trade and the Anglo-Irish peace deal of 1998, but also potentially trips to not one but two ancestral homes.

One is in Ballina, in the western county of Mayo, and the other is on the east coast’s scenic Cooley Peninsula, just south of the border with Northern Ireland. Locals — several of them Mr. Biden’s distant relatives — say they have no fear of being shunned. In fact, even though the president’s itinerary has not been announced, they are already preparing to celebrate Mr. Biden with all of the fanfare their towns can muster.

“I think it’s fair to say that Biden is the most Irish of U.S. presidents, except maybe for Kennedy,” said Lynne Kelleher, the author of a book about Ireland and the White House.

Both as vice president and as private citizen, she noted, Mr. Biden has visited the places his ancestors lived before they went to America. He has also kept in contact with distant cousins, and has repeatedly quoted Irish poets in speeches.

“His interest in Ireland is very genuine,” she said, adding, “For him, it’s a personal thing.”

In Ballina, preparations are well underway. A local theatrical costume company is making U.S. flags and bunting, and town leaders have approached the central government for funds to help spruce up the streets, said Mark Duffy, a Mayo County councilor and the chairman of Ballina’s municipal district.

“There’s great excitement in the town,” said Joe Blewitt, a plumber and distant Biden cousin who was invited this St. Patrick’s Day to the White House, where he spent a half-hour chatting with the president. He and Mr. Biden trace their ancestry to Edward Blewitt, an engineer and brickmaker who left Ballina in 1850, just after the great Irish Famine, and settled in Scranton, Pa.

“He’s a great man to talk, and a great man to listen,” Mr. Blewitt said of the president. “It’s not all about him; he’s all about family. He’s a man for other people. When he comes again, for Ireland, for Mayo, for the town of Ballina, it’s going to be phenomenal.”

The centerpiece of Ballina’s celebration — an oddly Warholian mural of Mr. Biden’s beaming face that went up during the 2020 election — is currently hidden by construction work on the town’s Market Square. But Mr. Duffy said the obstructions would be temporarily taken down so visitors, namely the president, could see it on the big day.

And like others in County Mayo, he was quick to hail the connections between Mr. Biden’s hometown and his own region. “There’s a true connection between Scranton and Ballina,” Mr. Duffy said. “People from here went there to work on the railways, or fled the famine and went straight down the coal mines.”

In Carlingford, residents also have a claim to Mr. Biden’s affections: His great-great-grandfather Owen Finnegan left the Cooley Peninsula for New York in 1849. Andrea McKevitt, a county councilor and a fifth cousin of the president’s, said it was up to the whole peninsula to put its best foot forward. “We are going to be on a global stage,” she said, “and we have to do what we can.”

With no advance details of the president’s itinerary, local speculation has centered on a medieval graveyard, which Mr. Biden visited in 2016 to see a family grave. He also stopped by nearby Lily Finnegan’s pub, a whitewashed seaside inn that belonged to a branch of his family.

But with Northern Ireland only about two miles away, across the narrow waters of Carlingford Lough, residents are also mindful that Mr. Biden is visiting for work, and in particular to focus on the 1998 peace deal, the Good Friday Agreement, that ended decades of violence known as the Troubles.

“This whole area would have been very thankful for the Good Friday Agreement,” said Barra Mulligan, a local musician, electrician and another of Mr. Biden’s fifth cousins. “We had our share of violence and trouble before it was signed.”

After Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016, the land border between the Republic of Ireland, a member of the bloc, and Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, grew into a deeply divisive issue. If border controls, eliminated when both countries were in the European Union, were reintroduced, some feared that the peace agreement could be jeopardized, and Mr. Biden urged Britain to resolve the question. A deal was finally struck in February, avoiding the so-called hard border.

With free movement thus preserved, people on the peninsula are now hoping to see the construction of a long-awaited bridge across Carlingford Lough, which would further improve links to Northern Ireland.

“We’ll be looking to call it the Biden Bridge because he’s making such a contribution to peace on this island,” Ms. McKevitt said.

Mr. Biden’s history with Ireland may be particularly strong, but American presidents and Irish people have embraced each other for decades — sometimes to the consternation of other nations, said Ms. Kelleher, the author.

“I think there is a romanticism attached to it. You never hear about them talking up their roots there when they go to Buckingham Palace or France,” she said. “The Italians also have a big connection to the U.S., but they don’t seem to get the same ancestral visits that we do. When J.F.K. came here, there was a letter from Spanish diplomats asking why Spain didn’t get the same treatment.”

For now, at least, Dublin can rely on the Good Friday Agreement as a rare point of consensus in the United States’ polarized politics, said Prof. Liam Kennedy, an expert on Irish American relations at the Clinton Institute at University College Dublin.

“Ireland, and the Good Friday Agreement, are viewed as a success for U.S. foreign policy, and that’s why people on both sides of the aisle can buy into it,” he said. “There are very few things left in Washington that are seen as bipartisan, and it’s no mean thing to be able to say that Ireland is one of them.”

But he said the future of Ireland-U.S. relations was far more uncertain.

“Biden is the second Irish Catholic president of the U.S., but where is the next one coming from? He could be the last hurrah of Irish American liberalism,” Professor Kennedy said. More Irish Americans are voting Republican, he said, and Irish American neighborhoods and institutions are fading away.

All the same, he noted, more than 30 million people in the United States still claim Irish ancestry.

“That surely means something,” Professor Kennedy said. “But what?”

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