Like so many Americans do each year, President Joe Biden returned to Ireland this week in search of his roots, seeking some connection and some answers in the land his people left so many years ago.
He found it in pubs, priests and Parliament, which he said (in the Irish language) felt like home: “Tá mé sa bhaile.” The reception was more rapturous than anything he could hope for from Congress.
A day later, Biden capped his four day visit to his ancestral homeland with a serendipitous encounter and a prime time speech to thousands that served as a forum to thread together the deeply personal – and familiar – anecdotes that have animated his political career.
“Being here does feel feels like coming home. It really does. Over the years stories of this place has become part of my soul,” Biden said during his remarks, which were preceded by Irish music and a laser light show.
The rally, delivered to an audience the White House said numbered around 27,000 people, was one of the largest of Biden’s entire political career.
Offering a vibe break from divided and bitter Washington – if not necessarily all of its difficulties, like a massive leak of classified information that preoccupied White House aides but which he sought to downplay – Biden’s four-day trip left such an impression he said repeatedly he did not want to leave.
“I’m not going home,” he said. “I’m staying here.”
With a nostalgic eye that sometimes blurred history, Biden wondered why his ancestors left this island in the first place (answer: a famine). He found connections in the people and the landscape. Scranton, he said, was a dead ringer for the Boyne Valley.
And in a tearful moment of serendipity, he came across the priest who administered his dying son’s last rites.
“It seemed like a sign,” he said.
Biden suddenly found himself identifying more with local traditions than those from America. “I’d rather have my children playing rugby now for health reasons than I would have them playing football,” he declared.
He tried not to get too lost in the past, insisting modern-day Ireland would write its own story. For Biden the president, the Ireland of 2023 is exactly the type of progressive, advanced democracy that can act as a bulwark against a global tide of populism.
But for Biden the man, Ireland sometimes seems more like a set of concepts: a loose yet somehow specific kind of destiny; a blend of future and past; an immigrant identity.
“As my mother would say, ‘That’s the Irish of it,’” he told a group of his cousins on Wednesday. “That’s the Irish of it. Whenever we’d say something was unusual, she said, ‘Joey, that’s the Irish of it.’ And it is the Irish of it.”
The nostalgia was matched only by a tangible sense of awe at the heights he has now reached. As Biden spoke in Ballina on Friday, the backdrop was a cathedral built by the bricks provided by one of his forefathers.
“I doubt he ever imagined that his great, great, great grandson would return 200 years later as president of the United States of America,” Biden said in a particularly poignant moment.
Perhaps caught in a sentimental moment, Biden seemed to drop his guard in his speech to the joint houses of Ireland’s parliament. He made reference to a topic mostly off-limits back home: his advanced age.
“I’m at the end of my career, not the beginning,” he said toward the end of his speech to lawmakers. “The only thing I bring to this career after my age – and you can see how old I am – is a little bit of wisdom.”
In Ireland, his remark seemed to suggest, a lifetime of memories was an asset instead of a liability.
Biden’s trip came as he nears a decision on running again for president. He said the day before he left he planned on running but wasn’t prepared to announce it.
If enthusiasm levels among Americans for a second Biden term appear low, even among Democrats, there was a more palpable sense of excitement for the 80-year-old president here.
Crowds four or five deep waited for hours in cold drizzle to greet him in Dundalk. Local organizers of his final speech in Ballina replicated the configuration of their vaunted Salmon Festival to welcome Biden into town.
His speech Friday night carried all the markers of a campaign rally, albeit in Ireland instead of the United States. The crowd waved American and Irish flags in front of the dramatically lit St. Muredach’s Cathedral, which was built using bricks sold by Biden’s great great great grandfather.
In theory, images of a president embraced abroad could be useful to a presidential campaign, particularly to the 36 million Americans who identify as Irish-American.
In practice, an increasingly isolationist Republican Party may use Biden’s popularity abroad against him.
“I own property in Ireland, I’m not going to Ireland,” former President Donald Trump said during Biden’s trip. “The world is exploding around us, you could end up in a third world war, and this guys is going to be in Ireland.
White House officials made little attempt at ascribing major policy objectives to Biden’s trip. The most robust piece of background provided ahead of time was a five-page genealogical table tracking the various branches of his family tree.
If there was a goal, it was the one Biden described as he departed Washington for Belfast on Tuesday: ensuring the 25-year-old Good Friday Agreement, a product of intensive American diplomacy, remains in place.
“Keep the peace, that’s the main thing,” he said before boarding Air Force One.
Heavy violence between Nationalists and Unionists has been mostly left to another era. But as Biden acknowledged, the peace is fragile and the politics in Northern Ireland are broken.
Tight security surrounded Biden’s trip amid flare-ups of political violence, though his 15-hour visit to Belfast went without incident (aside from a sensitive security document found lying in the street).
Biden did not paper over the tensions. He made a direct call for the political parties in Northern Ireland to return to a power-sharing government – between those who want to remain part of the United Kingdom and those who favor a united Ireland – that was a central pillar of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
He tried to avoid being drawn directly into the feud over Brexit trade rules, recognizing the perception he is less-than-evenhanded when it comes to the Irish-British divide.
He even sought to emphasize his English ancestors rather than his Irish ones when he spoke at Ulster University (the English roots hadn’t made it onto the White House genealogical chart).
It wasn’t convincing to some Unionist leaders. The former leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Arlene Foster, told a local radio station that Biden “hates the United Kingdom.” She asked why his limo flew the Irish flag in the South but not the British one in the North.
By the time Biden made it to Dublin, he was more candid at where he believed responsibility for the problem rests.
“I think that the United Kingdom should be working closer with Ireland in this endeavor,” he said.
The Ireland Biden visited is a distant cry from the place his ancestors left so long ago. It doesn’t even look much like the country John F. Kennedy – the last Irish Catholic president – toured in 1963.
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 (including, at times, Biden himself) still hold onto in the popular imagination.
Biden acknowledged the hazy lens through which his ancestral homeland is sometimes viewed. He noted his own early impressions of the island were passed down from grandparents who’d never actually visited themselves.
“For too long, Ireland’s story has been told in the past tense,” he said.
Yet for much of his trip, it was the past he was looking for. Peering out from the tower of Carlingford Castle toward Newry, he saw the port his great-great-grandfather Owen Finnegan sailed from in 1849. The bricks at St. Muredach’s Cathedral, where he spoke late Friday, were sold by his great-great-great-grandfather Edward Blewitt to fund his family’s passage to the US.
The Irish identity Biden explored this week is intrinsically linked to his own Catholicism. Aside from the cathedral, he also visited the Our Lady of Knock shrine, the site of an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1879.
Yet today, Catholicism may be more entwined with the Irish-American identity than the Irish one. 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. Three years later, Ireland voted decisively to end what, at the time, was one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the world.
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.
More than anything, Biden’s trip this week had the feeling of a family spring break. He brought along his sister Valerie and son Hunter, with whom he toured ancestral sites on Wednesday and Friday. His wife, Dr. Jill Biden, remained in Washington to attend to her college teaching job.
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. And on the trip this week, he acted as a steadying presence for his father, helping him at moments to navigate the enthusiastic crowds.
“I’m proud of you,” Biden told his son during a meeting with family members in Dundalk, asking him to stand for a round of applause.
His other son was on his mind as well. Throughout the sometimes-rainy trip, Biden kept his head dry with a baseball cap from the Beau Biden Foundation.
When he visited the Knock Shrine, he reconnected with the priest who gave last rites to Biden’s dying son 2015. He is now the chaplain at the site.
The moment brought Biden to tears, the priest later told the Irish Times.
“It was incredible to see him,” Biden said later.
Speaking to parliament, he said it was Beau, who died in 2015, who should be standing where he was.
“He should be the one standing here giving this speech to you,” Biden said.