Tearful Biden explores faith and family at finale of Ireland trip
US President Joe Biden brought an emotive visit to Ireland to a climax on Friday with a campaign-style exhortation for hope, after a tearful encounter with the priest who read the last rites to his late son.
The Democratic president, who has Irish roots, gave a concluding speech that coincided with an angry address back home by Donald Trump, his potential Republican rival for the presidential election next year.
Biden was feted by an estimated 27,000 people as he spoke in front of the floodlit St Muredach’s Cathedral in Ballina, one of his family’s ancestral hometowns, in northwest Ireland.
In 1828, Biden’s forebear Edward Blewitt sold the bricks that went into the construction of the Roman Catholic cathedral, using the money to fund his famine-stricken family’s later emigration to the United States.
The 80-year-old president has yet to formally declare that he will run again in next year’s election, but all the trappings of a campaign rally were present in Ballina.
The Irish and Americans were united by an optimistic vision, Biden said.
“More than anything, hope is what beats in the hearts of all our people,” he said, reprising the core message of his and Barack Obama’s historic campaign in 2008.
“Even during times of darkness and despair, hope has kept us marching forward toward a better future, one of a greater liberty, greater dignity and greater possibilities.”
– ‘Shock of his life’ –
Biden was in a more sorrowful mood earlier on a visit to the celebrated Roman Catholic pilgrimage shrine at Knock, near Ballina.
Organisers made the last-minute discovery of a link between the Biden family and one of their priests, Father Frank O’Grady, who returned to Ireland after years serving as a chaplain in the US army.
The president’s son Beau Biden died of brain cancer aged 46 in 2015. Father O’Grady administered the Catholic rites at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center outside Washington.
O’Grady was not on the official guest list but was given hurried security clearance.
Biden said it was “incredible” to meet by chance with the priest.
“It seemed like a sign,” he said of the 10-minute meeting, which was joined by his remaining son Hunter and the president’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens.
O’Grady told Irish broadcaster RTE that Biden “certainly misses his son” but that the president said his Catholic faith had “sustained him”.
“He has been grieving a lot, but I think the grief is kind of going down a bit,” the priest said.
Knock Shrine parish priest Richard Gibbons told the BBC that Biden “got the shock of his life” at discovering O’Grady’s presence in Knock.
“He was crying, it really affected him and then we said a prayer, said a decade of the rosary for his family.
“He lit a candle and then he took a moment or two of private (reflection) for prayer.”
The US president went on to visit the Mayo Roscommon Hospice nearby with his son, sister, and Irish cousin Laurita Blewitt.
In 2017, he came for the building’s groundbreaking, and a plaque there commemorates Beau Biden.