Joe Biden’s Irish roots and what this may mean for US-Ireland Relations
The small town of Ballina in County Mayo on Ireland’s west coast lies at the mouth of the River Moy and can count among its notable residents Mary Robinson, Ireland’s first female president, who served from 1990 to 1997.
Lately, its inhabitants have had something to celebrate and the town has been awash with flags and fanfare. This is because Ballina is also the ancestral home town of the new President of the United States, Joe Biden.
In the early 19th century, Biden’s great, great, great grandfather, Patrick Blewitt, called Ballina home. That was until 1851 when, spurred by the Irish potato famine, he cast his sights on America and headed West, settling in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Almost a century later, in 1942, Biden was born in that very city. Yet Biden has maintained an affinity for Ireland and in 2016 made a trip to Ballina where the warmth of its residents was on full display as thousands lined the streets to greet him. Biden embraced Ballina’s people – and made contact with relatives who still reside there.
Biden’s visit also served to inspire many in Ballina, reminding them that anything is possible. Not only has Ballina spawned the nation’s first female president, but it can now count the President of the United States of America among those the town is proud to call its own.
In a letter from the President of Ireland to Joe Biden on 20 January, Michael D. Higgins wrote to congratulate the new President of the United States and referenced an Irish proverb: “Is ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine”, which means, “we live in each other’s shadow and in each other’s shelter.” He added that “It reminded me that we are all interconnected, we are all interdependent, we all have an effect on each other on this fragile planet that we share.”
Higgins went on to say, “The US has been a true friend to Ireland in so many ways. Your own friendship and support for so many years has been invaluable. Ireland, of course, has made its most valuable contribution to your great land by providing so many of our daughters and sons. The descendants of some turned out to be rather fine Presidents!”
For Biden is not the only American President with Irish roots – others include Barack Obama, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, Woodrow Wilson, and famously John F. Kennedy, to name a few. The inauguration of Joe Biden means that 23 of the 46 US Presidents have Irish ancestors, it’s an impressive 50%.
Yes Biden is among the most outward in his affection for Ireland; he has embraced his Irish roots and Catholic faith. He has quoted Irish poet Seamus Heaney often – in the 2008 presidential primaries, as vice-president and, most recently, on winning the election he released a campaign video where he reads from Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, pitching himself as the person to mediate social healing.
And his love for Ireland may bode well for the nation and for US-Ireland relations. Biden is known for being against Brexit and while on the campaign trail he often mentioned that any future trade deal between the US and the UK would be dependent on the latter’s respect for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought decades of conflict in Northern Ireland to an end. Yet the Irish border was something of a sticking point in Brexit negotiations, with the UK government reneging on an agreement with Brussels to respect the agreement and the open border. Biden raised the issue early on, stating that he did not want a guarded border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. And following the Brexit agreement in December, the decision has been made to maintain an open frontier.
Economically Biden appreciates that the United States is important for Ireland for investment and job creation. The nation is a magnet for US tech and pharmaceutical giants thanks to its low taxes and well-educated, English-speaking workforce. Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Facebook, Google, Apple and Twitter are among those with significant business operations in Ireland.
Many believe that Biden’s Irish roots will help relations between the US, the UK, and Ireland, particularly with regards to each’s relationships with Europe, especially as Ireland remains a member of the EU. And it certainly seems to promise a good relationship between the US and Ireland, which Ireland’s growing influence diplomatically will only enhance. Ireland boasts embassies in every country in the EU and is one of the biggest spenders in Washington when it comes to foreign lobbying. In June 2020 Ireland won a seat on the UN Security Council, while in July Irish Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe became leader of Eurogroup.
Additionally, Ireland’s prime minister receives an automatic invitation every year to the Oval Office for St. Patrick’s Day – the only world leader to enjoy such a privilege – and has done since 1956. This arrangement could make Taoiseach Micheál Martin the first head of government to meet with the new president if the meeting goes ahead in March.
Ahead of that scheduled meeting, Martin extended an invitation to Biden to Ireland in return, who replied “try and keep me out,” jokingly emphasizing his love for his homeland. But it goes beyond just love – there’s a respect there too. As Ambassador Mulhall at Ireland’s embassy in Washington has said “It’s a good thing that we will have a president who has this kind of depth of understanding of Irish affairs, which is bound to be beneficial to us.”