Monday, 25th September 2023

Irish Joe: Immigrant roots central to Biden’s political identity

When a British journalist once asked Joe Biden for an interview, the US president responded with a joke.

[FILES] US President Joe Biden (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP)

When a British journalist once asked Joe Biden for an interview, the US president responded with a joke.

“The BBC? I’m Irish,” Biden said, smiling, as he walked past the reporter, in an undated video that went viral on social media.

Eighty-year-old Biden, the second Catholic president in American history, will lean into his Irish heritage when he travels to the United Kingdom and Ireland this week.

The US leader, who acts as if he had already begun his 2024 presidential campaign, albeit without officially declaring his candidacy, wants to appeal to voters vying for the American dream of immigrants’ success.

A 2020 Biden campaign ad featured the future president reciting a poem by Irish Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney.

And when the Irish rugby team beat New Zealand’s mighty All Blacks in November 2021, Biden picked up the phone to congratulate them.

His BBC joke aside, Biden does have British heritage on his father’s side. But he has chosen to emphasize his maternal lineage.

Biden’s ancestors left Ireland in the mid-19th century when the country was ravaged by famine, before eventually settling in blue-collar Scranton, Pennsylvania.

So Biden now plans a reverse trip. His itinerary includes stops in Belfast to commemorate the signing 25 years ago of the Good Friday agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland. He then moves on for a series of official events in Dublin.

But the White House has also organized several very personal stops in the land of Biden’s ancestors, just as in 2016, when he traveled to Ireland as vice president.

Will he again stop in the village pub founded by his family? If so, he won’t be ordering the traditional pint of beer. “I’m the only Irishman you’ve ever met, though, that’s never had a drink,” he joked recently.

As his expected 2024 campaign approaches, Biden has promised to revive the “American dream,” saying he will give his fellow countrymen and women cause for hope and confidence. How better to do that than through a lyrical recounting of his family’s emigration from Ireland?

In a 2013 speech delivered upon his admission to the Irish America Hall of Fame, he evoked the family history as he sang the praises of their newly adopted country, one replete, he said, with “possibilities for those who are willing to work hard, those who are willing to play by the rules.”

“It’s all about dignity,” he said, sounding themes still regularly heard in his stump speeches.

‘Land of possibilities’
“This is a powerful origin story that taps into the continued American self-imagination as a land of possibilities,” Coilin Parsons, director of global Irish studies at Georgetown University, told AFP.

The octogenarian whose life has been scarred by death — Biden has lost two children and his first wife — and who has faced no shortage of setbacks in his political career, often says he draws his strength from two sources: his Catholic faith and his family’s values.

On March 17 or St. Patrick’s Day — a public holiday in Ireland — Biden shared a bit of advice he had received from his maternal grandfather: “Joey,” he said, “never bend, never bow, never kneel, never yield. Never. Never.”

The visceral attachment to his Irish heritage by the sometimes sentimental, sometimes hotheaded US president naturally has a political dimension as well.

Since 1952, said Parsons, a top official of the Irish government, generally the Taoiseach, or prime minister, “has been able to command the time and attention of the US president … (with) a visit of the White House every St. Patrick’s Day. No other country has the luxury of being able to count on that level of political access.”

More than 30 million Americans claim Irish roots and the Irish-American vote can still prove pivotal in strategic states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, Parsons said.

But he also pointed out that Biden’s trip, while replete with nods to Irish folklore and history, is also designed to shine light, if indirectly, on some very current topics.

“Yes, there are shamrocks and Irish dancing,” Parsons said, “but increasingly Ireland represents a different kind of story…. At a time when US politics seems to be turning rapidly toward entrenched conservatism, Ireland is a country that has shaken off the influence of the Catholic Church in recent years,” allowing same-sex marriages, for example.

And Joe Biden, while a fervent Catholic, has also become a vocal defender of abortion rights — something strongly Catholic Ireland opened the door to in recent years.

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