Is Joe Biden the 'most Irish' US president in history?

Joe Biden is the latest in a long line of US presidents with Irish ancestry, ITVX reports

Words by Lottie Kilraine, ITV News Multimedia Producer

US President Joe Biden’s highly anticipated four-day visit to the island of Ireland is about to begin.

The White House confirmed the trip last week and said it would “mark the tremendous progress” since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement 25 years ago.

Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that the 46th president would use his visit to highlight “how his family history is part of that larger shared history” between the US and Ireland.

Meanwhile, the Irish Family History Centre has described Biden as being “among the most ‘Irish’ of all US Presidents”.

But what does that actually mean?

Roots in Ireland’s west and east coasts

Ten of Biden's 16 great-great grandparents are said to have come from the Emerald Isle.

During his trip, Biden is due to visit Belfast first, before travelling on to Dublin, with visits also planned to Co Louth and Co Mayo, where his ancestors hail from.

But the president's family backgound is not wholly surprising.

It is reported that more than 30 million Americans - almost one in 10 - claim some Irish ancestry.

Biden can trace his relatives to Ireland’s west and east coasts, specifically Ballina in Co Mayo and the Cooley Peninsula in Co Louth.

His ancestors left for the US during the Great Famine of the mid-19th century, which killed an estimated one million people. A further one million emigrated.

A mural of President Joe Biden adorns the side of a shop in Ballina, Ireland. Credit: AP

White House spokesman John Kirby revealed on Monday that one of the stops on Biden's schedule will include a speech at St Muredach’s Cathedral in Ballina.

Mr Kirby said the president’s great-great-great grandfather Edward Blewitt sold 27,000 bricks to the cathedral in 1827.

“Those bricks were used to construct and support the great cathedral and help Edward afford to buy tickets for himself and for his family to sail to America decades later in 1851," Mr Kirby told reporters.

“The president is very much looking forward to that trip and to celebrating the deep historic ties that our two countries and our two people continue to share.”

Biden's great-great-grandfather Owen Finnegan emigrated to the United States from the Cooley peninsula while another great-great-grandfather, Patrick Blewitt, was born in Ballina, leaving in 1850 to sail to America.

After making a speech at Ulster University, the president is also scheduled to travel to Co Louth, where his great-grandfather James Finegan was born.

The 'most Irish' US president in history

Ireland has warmly welcomed US presidents since John F Kennedy became the first to visit in 1963.

JFK, famously the first Irish-Catholic president, once told the people of Limerick: “This is not the land of my birth, but it is the land for which I hold the greatest affection.”

More recently, Barack Obama recieved a jubilant reception when he visited the tiny hamlet of Moneygall in 2011.

The small village - reported to have a population of 313 people, as of the 2016 census - was once home to one of his great-great-great grandfathers, on his mother's side.

“My name is Barack Obama, of the Moneygall Obamas, and I’ve come home to find the apostrophe we lost somewhere along the way,” he once joked to a crowd in Dublin.

Former US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama drink Guinness as they meet local residents at Ollie Hayes pub in Moneygall. Credit: AP

The former president has even had the honour of sharing the name with the Barack Obama Plaza - a service station, just off the M7 motorway in County Tipperary.

However, Obama was not the first US president to discover his Irish roots.

Ronald Reagan learned that his great-grandfather hailed from Ballyporeen, in County Tipperary - a small village with a reported population of just over 300 people.

Meanwhile Richard Nixon and the Bushes have also claimed Irish heritage, and Bill Clinton is said to have links to County Fermanagh.

During his trip this week Biden will address the Irish parliament in the Dail chamber, becoming the fourth US president to do so – following JFK’s address in June 1963, Reagan’s in June 1984 and Bill Clinton’s in December 1995.

John F Kennedy speaks to a joint session of the Dail, the Irish Parliament and the Seanad, at Leinster House in Dublin, 1963. Credit: AP

And although he may not be the first President to visit the Emerald Isle, Biden is certainly considered the 'most Irish' by many living there.

Distant relatives in Ireland celebrated his election win in November 2020 and gathered again in January 2021 to mark his inauguration.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Biden “has always been a friend of Ireland,” and has hailed his visit as “an opportunity to welcome a great Irish-American president home.”

Preparations for a warm Irish welcome

Excitement over Biden’s trip has been growing in the town of Ballina, from which one of the president’s great-great-grandfathers left for the United States in 1850.

American flags have been hung from shopfronts in the agricultural town of about 10,000 residents at the mouth of the River Moy in western Ireland.

Joe Blewitt, a cousin of US President Joe Biden. Credit: AP

The centre of town already has a mural of a beaming Biden, erected in 2020.

Many people from Ballina and the wider county, Mayo, moved to Pennsylvania in the 19th century, and Ballina is twinned with Scranton - which is Biden’s US hometown.

Joe Blewitt, a distant cousin who first met Biden when he visited Ballina as vice president in 2016, said that the US leader pledged to return once he’d won the presidency.

“He said, ‘I’m going to come back into Ballina.’ And sure to God he’s going to come back into Ballina,” he told reporters. “His Irish roots are really deep in his heart.”

The 43-year-old plumber was among Biden's relations invited to the White House for St Patrick’s Day last month.

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