PResident Joe Biden’s The paternal surname was brought to the United States in the early 1800s by William Biden, a stonemason who immigrated to Maryland from the village of Westburn in southern England. As far as anyone knows, Mr. Biden has not yet visited. But this week, he made his third pilgrimage in seven years to Ireland, the homeland of his maternal ancestors: the Bluewitts of Mayo and the Finnegans of Louth. In 2016, he made his first visit as vice president; a second time as a private citizen a year later; most recently, triumphantly as president. Wherever he went, he was bathed in clover.
For a small, military-neutral country, Ireland far outstrips its capabilities when it comes to the coveted US presidential visit. Eight have left since John F. Kennedy became the first to do so in 1963. Kennedy, who is 100 percent Irish and the first Roman Catholic to occupy the Oval Office, inspired an almost religious devotion during his visit. Decades later, many Irish families displayed his picture alongside that of the Pope. In 1970, Richard Nixon, discredited at home by the Vietnam War, came seeking similar adoration only to have eggs thrown at him by peaceful protesters. His visit left little impression. Perhaps, as a descendant of Irish Quakers, he did not resonate enough in a country that at the time was still seen by many as Irish and Catholic were deeply intertwined.
Ronald Reagan seemed to have little interest in his Irish surname before he became president, but after a warm reception in 1984, he became a born-again Irishman. Bill Clinton came to Ireland three times, though mostly on business for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Even America’s first black president, Barack Obama, made a pilgrimage in 2011 to Moneygall in County Offaly, the birthplace of his great-great-great-grandfather, Falmouth Kearney , who emigrated to the United States in 1850 during the Great Famine “I came home to find the apostrophe we lost on the road,” joked Mr Obama.
What is it about Ireland that makes so many presidents pale and dizzy? Electoral considerations have been a factor: In the 2021 American Community Survey, an annual poll conducted by the Census Bureau, more than 30 million Americans, or 9 percent of the population, claim Irish ancestry. As a voting group, however, their allegiances have shifted over the decades. Long before he went to Wexford, Kennedy had the assurance of a Democratic vote from the staunchly Irish-American Catholics of the time. Later, Reagan, though a devout Protestant, was attracting voters from Catholic European countries—Ireland, Poland, Italy, etc.—to the Republican Party, which they now largely support.
Lynn Kelleher, author of a recent book on Ireland and the White House, said dodgy diplomats in Dublin played a role in electing successive U.S. presidents by helping to unearth candidates for their Irish roots long before Election Day. Sean Donlon, then Irish ambassador to Washington, presented Reagan with his family tree when he was a candidate; as president, Reagan encouraged his British president and ally, Margaret Thatcher Thatcher was rewarded for working more closely with Dublin on the issue of Northern Ireland, which he then suffered. That compromise eventually led to the Good Friday peace deal, which this week will see Mr. Biden and Mr. Clinton travel to Ireland to mark its 25th anniversary.
Donald Trump seems less keen on emphasizing his links to Ireland. His mother was born in the Outer Hebrides and her mother tongue was Scottish Gaelic, a language closely related to Irish and the country’s official language (although few Irish speak it at home these days). But when Mr Trump visited the country in 2019, he spent most of his time at his golf resort in Clare. His Irish ancestry was not found – or, perhaps, was not eagerly sought. While Donald Trump’s list of allies and beneficiaries is jam-packed with the likes of Barrett, Conway, Kelly, Kavanaugh and others, Irish politics are looking increasingly at odds with his own. The country has made more social progress in recent years, legalizing abortion and same-sex marriage.
Liam Kennedy, who studies Ireland-US relations at UCD’s Clinton Institute, said that unlike some others, Mr Biden had a genuine love of the old country and his Irish identity. “We have to be careful about fakes, or the gibberish that Biden himself says, but I think he’s the real deal.” ■