Biden goes to Ireland

Islander was there as the U.S. president visited his ancestral home.


It was a feast day and a fair day all combined when President Joe Biden returned to his ancestral home in the town of Ballina, County Mayo, Ireland, last week. During his four-day visit to Ireland, he spent one day in Mayo making and cementing personal connections, beginning with a tour of the shrine in the village of Knock. The shrine honors the story of an apparition of Our Lady, surrounded by several other figures, in 1878, and has been venerated as a place of Catholic pilgrimage for nearly 150 years. Many prayers have sanctified the collective energy there. While there, in a totally unscripted event, the President met the former military chaplain, Father O’Grady, who administered the last rites of the Catholic Church to his son Beau, who died in 2015. It was a meeting that moved him to tears. Beau was in his thoughts when he moved on to the hospice in the town of Castlebar, where he turned the first sod of soil for the building to begin in 2017. In his speech in Ballina later in the day, the president referred to the fact that the hospice was dedicated to his son, and it comforted him to think that a part of Beau would live on surrounded by his ancestors.

It was a busy schedule for Biden as he moved on to the North Mayo Genealogy Center in Enniscoe, Crossmolina Mayo, where he was presented with a documented record of his family tree beginning with his great-great-great-grandfather Edward Blewett, who emigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1850 during the devastating famine known in Ireland as An Gorta Mor, where more than one-quarter of the population either died or emigrated. The information found by local historians shows that Edward Blewett had been involved with assisting with the first ordinance map of Ireland, had been an overseer in a workhouse, and had made 27,000 bricks, which he had delivered for the building of the Ballina Cathedral. The building of the cathedral began following the emancipation of Catholics in Ireland, and was consecrated to St. Muiredach in 1845 during the desperate years of the Famine. The building was completed in 1875, and Edward Blewett’s bricks are still an integral part.

In Enniscoe, the 14 members of the group who had commissioned a commemorative mural in the town of Ballina following Joe Biden’s visit in 2016 — and who had campaigned for the return of this most favored son of Ballina — assembled to meet the president. They presented him with a newly created mural that will be displayed in Ballina, and he graciously signed it. While in Enniscoe, he also met Miriam Caffrey and her father Ernie, who own a shop and gallery in the place where Edward Blewitt’s cottage once stood. They presented the president with a 200-year-old brick from the original fireplace, the only remaining part of the cottage.

Martin Leonard, who was one of the group of 14 who met with the president, noted that he was an extremely kind and friendly man, with an amazing memory. “He remembered my dad’s pub from seven years ago when he visited as vice president, and he must have been in 100 places on that visit, but he had great recall. When I met him, I told him that I cast my first-ever vote for him because I am Irish American and have American citizenship. He appreciated that. He made everyone in the group feel that he was really interested in them. He is a very sincere man.”

Joe Biden’s day culminated in an extravaganza on the bank of the River Moy in the beautiful town of Ballina, which had been eagerly waiting for his arrival. He was to speak outside the cathedral where his ancestor’s bricks still hold up the ceilings, and the town was festooned in U.S. flags and Irish tricolors. Every window, wall, and post was covered with welcome signs, and music played by the world-famous traditional Irish music group the Chieftains delighted the crowd of upwards of 27,000 people packed into every available space. Spontaneous Irish dancing broke out in the crowd, amid a wild sea of waving American and Irish flags and a palpable sense of joy and pride in the return of their most famous native son.

Ballina has two claims to fame. It is the home of Mary Robinson, the first woman president of Ireland, and the ancestral home of President Joe Biden. “There are not too many towns that can boast being the home of two presidents,” noted President Robinson in her address to the town as she reflected on the massive emigration that Ballina had seen during the desperate days of the Famine and the emigrant ships that took so many away in search of a living. During her time as president in the 1990s, Mary Robinson introduced the light in the window of the president’s residence as a signal to all Irish people scattered all over the world that they were welcome home. The light still shines in the presidential window as a tribute to all who left Ireland.

The president himself spoke to a crowd roaring approval and support. He spoke of emigration and the sadness Irish people had felt to leave Ireland, but their immense pride in their Irish identity through several generations. “I feel like I have come home,” he said, adding that his mother always told him that he was as good as anyone, but no better than anyone else. “Our peoples have shared tragic times, but we have always had that Irish value of believing that tomorrow can be better.” Many stories were shared about his family and the love of family and community, which he said he believes defines Irish people.

“This day in Mayo was a great opportunity for the town,” commented Martin Leonard. “We must capitalize on it and hope that it brings many people to our lovely town. There is an amazing history here of triumph and tragedy. We have a great story to tell to visitors, and we must make sure that we don’t just leave here but celebrate the libraries and museums that we have here that tell our story. We must honor our most famous native son by some permanent monument to him. His story is one of the Famine, emigration, success far away in America, and a triumphant return.”

Elaine Cawley Weintraub and her husband Joel Weintraub traveled to Ireland and witnessed President Joe Biden’s visit there firsthand. 



  1. I know I shouldn’t have this much affection for any politician, to say nothing of the President of the United States.

    Yet I have that affection for Joe. And the fact that he has been so successful has greatly aided that feeling.

    Thank you for posting this report! It was heartwarming.

Comments are closed.