DUBLIN – Following a chilly encounter north of the border, US President Joe Biden is promised of a much warmer reception by Irish politicians during a visit to the nation of his ancestors on Thursday.
Biden, only the country’s second Catholic president, will address the Irish parliament, known as the Oireachtas, in Dublin, following in the footsteps of John F. Kennedy.
He became the first sitting president to visit Ireland in June 1963, five months before his assassination.
Kennedy mentioned in his speech that the parliament building, Leinster House, had originally belonged to his ancestors, the Fitzgeralds, the Earls of Kildare.
However, he remarked, “I have not come here to claim it.”
Instead, he emphasized “the many and enduring links which have bound the Irish and the Americans since the earliest days,” when both were fighting the British.
Unlike JFK, Biden does not have noble origins, but some of his forefathers fled starvation under British control and settled in hardscrabble Scranton, Pennsylvania.
According to senior White House adviser Amanda Sloat, Biden will echo his predecessor in emphasizing “the deep and enduring historical, cultural, political, and economic ties between our countries” in his own talk on Thursday.
Following a speech in British-run Northern Ireland on Wednesday, he noted a disembarkation place for some of his 19th-century Irish forefathers.
While touring Carlingford Castle in a typical Irish drizzle, the 80-year-old leader, who calls Ireland “part of my soul,” said it felt “wonderful” and like “I’m coming home.”
His one-night trip in Belfast had been overshadowed by accusations from pro-UK unionists that he had “anti-British” views a quarter-century after a US-brokered peace agreement.
Biden told an audience at Ulster University in Belfast that he cared about peace for the entire divided island.
He urged Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to cease its blockade of Stormont, forecasting billions of dollars in fresh investment from “scores of major American corporations” if political stability is restored.
However, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson quickly stated that the visit “doesn’t change the political dynamic in Northern Ireland.”
Meanwhile, the briefness of his visit, which featured a “coffee meeting” with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, disappointed some British observers.
“It was hard to see the point of his visit,” remarked the Daily Mail’s political editor in an editorial.
Biden will see Irish President Michael D. Higgins and Prime Minister Leo Varadkar before his address in Dublin, whom he brought to the White House for St. Patrick’s Day last month, when the White House fountain turned emerald green.
Following his comments, Varadkar will hold a feast in Biden’s honor at Dublin Castle, Ireland’s ancient seat of English and British authority.
Before returning to the United States on Friday, Biden will visit Ballina in County Mayo, northwestern Ireland, another starting point for forebears who immigrated to Pennsylvania.
Joe Blewitt, a third cousin who works as a plumber, is one of Biden’s relatives who still live in the region.
“It’s emotional, it’s a very proud day for our family and Ireland,” said Blewitt, 43. “Ballina’s very special to him.”
Biden’s background is never far from his mind, prompting claims from Northern Irish unionists that his journey to the Emerald Isle is blatant advertising for a re-election bid.
“The relative strength of Irish-Americans as a percentage of all Americans is dropping steadily, but Ireland retains an outsized influence on the US,” said Coilin Parsons, director of global Irish studies at Washington’s Georgetown University.
“From music to literature and more, Irish culture has always found an eager public in the US, and not just among Irish-Americans,” he said.
But the president’s habitual blunder occurred late Wednesday at a community event in Dundalk, when he praised former Irish rugby player and distant cousin Rob Kearney.
Biden commended Kearney for “beating the hell out of the Black and Tans,” a vicious British army auxiliary unit that fought Irish independence fighters in the early 1920s and the All Blacks rugby team in New Zealand.
The White House issued an apology.
“I think for everyone in Ireland who is a rugby fan, it was incredibly clear that the President was talking about the All Blacks,” Sloat told reporters on Thursday.
“It was certainly clear to his cousin, who was sitting next to him.”