(WASHINGTON) — There’s one thing people from all political persuasions can likely agree on when it comes to Joe Biden: He is incredibly proud to be Irish-American.
It’s been more than 165 years since the president’s ancestors made their way across the Atlantic to America, but several generations later, Biden still boasts of his Irish blood.
He has a penchant for reciting lines from his favorite Irish poets when making remarks, and he regularly shares words of wisdom from relatives shaped by the Irish experience.
“Every time I’d walk out of his house in Scranton, Pennsylvania, when I lived there for a while, he’d look at me and say, ‘Joey, remember, the best drop of blood in you is Irish,"” Biden said of his grandfather during St. Patrick’s Day remarks last month.
Biden’s connection to Ireland comes on his maternal side through two families in particular: the Blewitts of Ballina in County Mayo and the Finnegans on the Cooley Peninsula in County Louth.
The story of their descendants’ journey to America, and more specifically, Scranton, ultimately leads to the 46th president of the United States — only the second Irish Catholic to hold the office.
As Biden embarks on his first visit as president to the Emerald Isle, much of his trip will focus on visiting the places his ancestors left behind that played a role in shaping who he is.
Biden traces some of his roots back to the Finnegan family of County Louth. Going back five generations, Biden’s great-great-great grandfather was John Finnegan. John married Mary Kearney, whose current-day descendant is Rob Kearney, a former professional rugby player, who has attended St. Patrick’s Day celebrations at the White House.
John Finnegan and Mary Kearney gave birth to Owen Finnegan in the Cooley Peninsula in County Louth in 1818. Owen was a shoemaker by trade, as was, coincidentally, President Barack Obama’s great-great grandfather, Joseph Kearney. Although Biden has said in the past that the two likely never met, he has noted the unlikely shared history of those leaving everything behind for an uncertain future.
Owen Finnegan’s son, James, was born in 1840, and was the Finnegan who ultimately took that chance on emigrating to the United States, moving to Seneca Falls, New York, in 1850, before continuing on to the Scranton region. There, James and wife Catherine gave birth to six children, including Ambrose, the future president’s grandfather.
Biden often quotes Ambrose during some of his highest-profile moments as he did during a major address on voting rights in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2022.
“My grandfather Finnegan used to say every time I walked out the door in Scranton, he’d say, ‘Joey, keep the faith.’ Then he’d say, ‘No, Joey, spread it,"” Biden said.
As vice president in 2016, Biden made a pilgrimage to County Louth, touring Kilwirra Church and Cemetery, where some of his ancestors were baptized, and visiting Lily Finnegan’s pub, which used to be owned by a distant relative. It’s not yet clear where exactly the president will spend his time in Louth during this visit.
The strength of the Finnegan connection is obvious in the Biden family: Biden’s granddaughter, the daughter of Hunter Biden, is named Finnegan.
Biden also traces his lineage back to the west coast of Ireland in County Mayo, to the Blewitts of Ballina.
The president’s great-great-great grandfather, Edward Blewitt, was born around 1803 in Ireland, and was raised in County Mayo. It was there that his son, Patrick Blewitt, was born in April 1832 — Biden’s great-great grandfather.
Edward, his wife Mary and their eight children, including Patrick, traveled across the Atlantic on the SS Excelsior in 1851 for America, to the sister city to Ballina — Scranton.
The trip was funded in part by Edward’s sale of 27,000 bricks to St. Muredach’s Cathedral in 1828 — where Patrick was baptized shortly after his birth, and where President Biden will deliver remarks Friday to end his visit to Ireland.
Once in America, Edward helped in the planning and layout of the city of Scranton. Patrick, who was educated in civil engineering in Ireland, married Catherine Scanlon in 1857, and had a son named Edward, named for his grandfather, in New Orleans in 1859.
Edward would return to Pennsylvania, and have his own political career, being elected to the Pennsylvania State Senate. He married Mary Ellen Stanton and they had four children, including Geraldine Blewitt, who went on to marry Ambrose Finnegan and give birth to Catherine “Jean,” Biden’s mother.
Biden’s connection to the Blewitts in Ireland has also remained strong. He has several distant family members who still live in Ballina, including Brendan Blewitt, and his children Joe and Laurita, who are the president’s third cousins.
Joe Blewitt, a plumber, has been outspoken about his connection to Biden, and has even visited the White House during Biden’s tenure for St. Patrick’s Day receptions. During the 2020 election, a mural of Biden was put up in Ballina, and celebrations were held in honor of Biden’s win.
What about the Bidens?
If you’re wondering where the “Biden” name fits into Biden’s proud Irish heritage, the answer is, it doesn’t.
Biden’s father was actually of English descent.
That proved to be a sore point for some of the proud Irish in Biden’s family. In his 2007 memoir, Promises to Keep, Biden recalled his aunt telling him when he was young, “Your father’s not a bad man. He’s just English.”
Still, Biden has taken care to highlight there is an Irish connection on his dad’s side, calling it his “saving grace.”
“He had the saving grace, on his mother’s side, of having a Hanafee from Galway. That’s the only thing that saved him. And you all think I’m kidding. I’m not,” Biden said of his father in 2022.
Biden has made clear his allegiance to his Irish roots at some of the most pivotal moments in his decades-long career in public service.
Of the Irish poets he often quotes, a favorite is Seamus Heaney, whose words he invoked in his Democratic National Convention address in 2020, as he accepted the party’s nomination on the path to becoming president.
“‘But then, once in a lifetime, the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme,"” Biden recited.
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