American flags are flying all over the picturesque little town of Ballina, which is nestled on the banks of the River Moy in County Mayo, Ireland. The proliferation of red, white, and blue is the town’s reaction to the election and upcoming inauguration of Joseph R. Biden as the 46th president of the United States.
Ballina is Biden’s ancestral homeland. This town is famous as the salmon capital of Europe, and fishermen from near and far flock to the river to watch the salmon leap and to try and catch at least a few of them. The annual Salmon Festival is two weeks of celebration of the famous fish, and is a huge attraction for visitors. The town in many ways represents the history of Ireland, from its Augustinian abbey to its imposing cathedral, to the Jackie Clarke library, created from the amazing historical collection of a local businessman. The Clarke library contains thousands of original documents that tell the story of Ireland’s long national struggle for independence.
Ballina also contains the remains of a workhouse, a stark testament to the horrors of the Great Irish Famine and its decimating effect on the population of Ballina. During those grim days of starvation, a man, Edward Blewitt, took a chance on America and on escape to better times. His ambitions would have been modest: enough to eat, work to do, and a one-way ticket out of a country that had become a graveyard. Little did he imagine that his great-great-great-grandson would become the 46th president of the United States.
As with many Irish people, Blewitt traveled to Scranton, Pa., a town long twinned with Ballina. On Jan. 20, when Joe Biden is sworn in as president of the United States, he will be looking over his shoulder at all those ancestors who came before him on the path from the Irish Famine to the White House. It’s a story of the American Dream, and the sense that anything is possible, but it’s an Irish story too: a story of endurance and empathy for all those who suffer.
As vice president, Joe Biden visited Ballina in 2016, and endeared himself to the townspeople and to his many Blewitt relatives in the neighboring village of Knockmore. His cousin, Joe Blewitt, who has a plumbing business in Knockmore, is proud of his famous relative, and has visited him in the U.S. His van bears the sign, “Joe Biden for the White House and Joe Blewitt for your house.” My own father, Martin Cawley, grew up in Knockmore, and often noted that “there is nothing anyone could want that they wouldn’t get in Ballina.” That list of essentials now includes a president.
Joe Biden returned to Ballina in 2017 on a private visit, and spent time meeting people. He was there for the opening of a new hospice in the town, where his cousin is a fundraiser. It was at that time that the town formed a committee to honor and celebrate him and support his bid to be president. Committee leader Derek Leonard, owner of Harrison’s Pub in Ballina, recalls Biden as a charismatic man. “He’s interested in everyone’s story, and not only the story but in the storyteller. He’s a listener, and he has great kindness. He’s seen trouble in his own life, and you can tell that he understands what trouble is. He’s a good man. It’s wonderful to think that the next time I see him he will be president.”
There were plans for a great party Jan. 20. Because of the strict COVID-19 lockdown laws, a big celebration involving the entire community will have to be modified, but it will still happen. The inauguration will be projected as it happens onto the walls of the old military barracks, and hundreds of people can attend by remaining in their cars to watch the historic moment. A large mural depicting Joe Biden has been painted on the wall of the Market Square, with a history of his life and his connection with the town attached.
Local schoolteacher Deirbhle Walshe spoke of the importance of the mural and of the story to the students at her school, Scoil Iosa. “We prepared questions for the students to find the answers, and we took them all down to the square to do a drawing of the mural. It was very important for our kids to hear this story, so that they could believe that they could overcome whatever obstacles they have. It’s a great story that at the time of the Famine, a man walked away from poverty and death, and his descendant comes back to us holding the most powerful job in the world. It’s an inspiration.”
The connection between Ballina and Vineyard students is a well-established one. The Irish history class at MVRHS, on its 15 trips to Ireland, always visited Ballina, and enjoyed spending time there. They wandered the town, visiting its many sites, and enjoyed playing soccer games in the park with the local boys and girls. The class also visited Moneygall in County Offaly, a tiny town from which Barack Obama’s Irish ancestor emigrated to America.
Leonard sent a photograph of the mural to Joe Biden, who was delighted with it. “He was ecstatic about it, and said he couldn’t wait to see it when he returns. We will be celebrating both him and Ballina on January 20th, and we have plans to recreate a house from the 1850s in the lanes behind Harrison’s Pub. It would be a simple enough famine house, but it would be a powerful way of understanding the realities of famine and emigration, and showing visitors from America the history of their own people. I spent 15 years in Massachusetts myself, and I feel a strong connection with America.”
The Stars and Stripes are flying all over Ballina, and it is hoped that many American visitors will come to the town, where they are bound to receive a warm Irish welcome. There is much for them to see and do here. Young people, too, are interested in this historic election: “It’s very exciting seeing someone whose family came from here becoming president, and I like the people he is picking for his cabinet. I hope he does well,” Patrick Conwell said.
“Everyone takes notice of what goes on in America. We need to know it and to understand it. I wish Joe Biden the best,” added Sinead Walshe.
On Inauguration Day, international media from CNN, CBS, and Al Jazeera will be there to record the historic events, and to speak with the townspeople who are proud to call President-elect Biden a Mayo Man. As local businessman John Corcoran noted, “It’s some achievement when you think about it, a small town in the west of Ireland can say about the president of the United States that he is one of us. He came from here.”
Elaine Weintraub, a Vineyard educator and co-founder of the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard, is an Irish immigrant. She is staying in Ballina to celebrate the inauguration of Joe Biden.