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In Ireland, Biden is on a diplomatic and deeply personal mission

United States flags flutter in the breeze above shops in Ballina town center on April 7 as the town prepares to welcome President Biden in County Mayo, his ancestral home.
Paul Faith
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AFP via Getty Images
United States flags flutter in the breeze above shops in Ballina town center on April 7 as the town prepares to welcome President Biden in County Mayo, his ancestral home.

This may be hyperbole, but the only thing President Biden quotes more than the great Irish poets is the wisdom of his Irish American mother.

"Today, I'm Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden's son," Biden said at a 2022 St. Patrick's Day event. "That's who I am."

Many modern American presidents have claimed Irish ancestry — from John Fitzgerald Kennedy to Barack Obama (or should we say "O'Bama"?), who has Irish relatives on his mom's side. But none has been quite as forward about it as Biden. The nation's second Irish-Catholic president will go to Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Tuesday and to the Republic of Ireland on Wednesday. He heads back to the U.S. on Friday.

The trip is part diplomacy and part homecoming.

"As we Irish say, that's no malarkey," Biden said last year during an Ohio factory tour. "That's a fact."

It's not entirely a fact that "malarkey" — one of Biden's frequently used terms — is Irish, but Biden attributes many features of his personality to being Irish-American.

Biden will tour his ancestral land

Biden's family hails from County Mayo and County Louth, both of which he will visit. Biden's ancestors came to the U.S. from Ireland in the mid-1800s. They lived through the Irish potato famine, and like so many others over the centuries came to the U.S. in search of opportunity.

Biden will likely talk about that universal experience in remarks outside St. Muredach's Cathedral later this week. According to the White House, Biden's great-great-great grandfather Edward Blewitt sold 27,000 bricks that helped build that County Mayo cathedral, and used the money to bring his family on a ship to America.

Biden will also visit County Louth where — as Biden told an audience at the Friends of Ireland Caucus lunch last month — "there's still a place called Finnegan's pub, which is related to my family."

It's not clear whether a stop into the pub is in the plans, but grabbing a pint of beer is not. "I'm the only Irishman, though, you've ever met who's never had a drink," said Biden, who like his predecessor doesn't drink alcohol.

Biden's Irish identity overlaps with his political image

Brendan O'Leary, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has a bold claim: "I think there's no doubt that Joe Biden is the most Irish of Irish American presidents."

Yes — he said Biden is even more overtly Irish than JFK, whose visit to Ireland in 1963 was a significant event, complete with live coverage and a play-by-play of the landing of Air Force One.

Kennedy's election was a breakthrough. Biden, on the other hand, is free to wear his heritage on his sleeve, O'Leary said, since electing an Irish Catholic to the highest office in the land is no longer a taboo.

"Indeed, I'd say he's much more visibly an Ordinary Joe, an average Irish American, than was his predecessor, John Fitzgerald Kennedy," said O'Leary, who points out Kennedy attended an elite private boarding school and then Harvard, making his lived experience much more Anglophile.

That Working Class Joe image is an important part of Biden's political identity and his outreach to voters.

The president will encourage peace

On the policy side, Biden's trip starts in Northern Ireland where he will deliver a message about ongoing U.S. support for the Good Friday Agreement, signed 25 years ago. That agreement, which the U.S. was pivotal in negotiating, brought an end to decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles.

"This was a ... huge deal," said Max Bergmann at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He expects Biden to hold up the Good Friday Agreement as "an example 25 years later where active U.S. engagement really made a difference."

A peace mural is seen in a loyalist area on April 4 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement, signed on April 10, 1998, ended most of the violence during the decades-long conflict known as The Troubles.
Charles McQuillan / Getty Images
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Getty Images
A peace mural is seen in a loyalist area on April 4 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement, signed on April 10, 1998, ended most of the violence during the decades-long conflict known as The Troubles.

But Brexit has tested the peace accord. The United Kingdom's move to withdraw from the European Union created new tensions over trade and risked stoking disputes over borders. A new agreement called the Windsor Framework aims to ease those tensions, but the political situation in Northern Ireland remains difficult.

With that in mind, O'Leary said he expects Biden's message in Belfast to focus on the economic opportunity that comes from peace and stability.

"America is not trying to interfere in the management of the power sharing arrangements within Northern Ireland," O'Leary said. "But it is very clearly giving a signal that if those work, well, then there will be encouragement from the United States for foreign and direct investment."

While personally connecting to his roots is important to Biden, politically so is building strong relationships between the U.S. and its European allies.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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