Tracing his family lineage, President Joe Biden received a rock star-like welcome Wednesday in this town in the Irish county where his mother’s family is from. Hundreds of people lined up four and five deep for block after block, and many had stretched out their hands hoping for even the slightest contact with Biden.
County Louth’s most famous descendant declared, “I don’t know why the hell my ancestors left here. It’s beautiful.”
Biden walked along a street of shops and restaurants in Dundalk, shaking hands, posing for photos, and greeting local people who are proud that he shares their Irish heritage. The president was joined by his son Hunter and sister Valerie.
The experience was replicated earlier in the day a short distance away in the seaside village of Carlingford, where the sound of bagpipes welcomed him on a cold, wet and windy afternoon.
Biden gazed out at the water from the stone balcony of Carlingford Castle, which would have been the last Irish landmark that Owen Finnegan, Biden’s maternal great-great-grandfather, saw before sailing for New York in 1849.
“It feels like I’m coming home,” Biden said as he was led on a tour and looked out over Carlingford Lough, a bay that empties into the Irish Sea. The president often cites his Irish lineage as a driving force in his public and private life.
As for the soggy weather, “It’s fine! It’s Ireland!” Biden said.
The excitement was palpable even before his arrival in County Louth, on Ireland’s east coast, after a 90-minute drive from Dublin. Well-wishers and curiosity seekers lined the motorcade route from the moment Biden’s limousine exited the highway.
The Carlingford Pipe Band, a four-piece bagpipe and drum ensemble, arranged to play an original piece, “A Biden Return” for the occasion.
County Louth is the home of Biden’s mother’s family, the Finnegans. According to a genealogy released by the White House, the president’s great-great-great-grandparents lived in Templetown and were married in 1813.
Their grandson, James Finnegan, born in 1840, emigrated to the United States with his family when he was 9 years old. The Finnegans settled in Seneca County, New York. James married Catherine Roche in 1846; they were Biden’s great-grandparents. Biden’s mother was Catherine Eugenia Finnegan.
After touring the castle, Biden was headed for downtown Dundalk, another town in County Louth. He had intended to visit a cemetery, but that plan was scrapped because of the weather.
Biden arrived in the Irish Republic after a brief stop in Northern Ireland.
He’s spending three days in Ireland, with plans to address the parliament in Dublin, attend a gala dinner and visit County Mayo, another ancestral area on the west coast of Ireland.
Upon his arrival in Dublin, the prime minister greeted Biden at the airport and then the president swung by a nearby fire station, where children of U.S. Embassy employees held American and Irish flags and signs that said “welcome home.”
According to the Irish Family History Centre, Biden “is among the most ‘Irish’ of all U.S. Presidents.” Ten of his 16 great-great grandparents were from the Emerald Isle, and they emigrated to the United States during the Great Famine of the mid-19th century. Biden is particularly fond of quoting Irish poetry, especially Seamus Heaney.
Earlier Wednesday, Biden marked the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. The U.S.-brokered deal brought peace to an area of the United Kingdom where years of sectarian violence known as “the Troubles” left some 3,600 people killed in bombings and other attacks.
But recent political turmoil has left Northern Ireland without a functioning government, rattling the foundations of the Good Friday Agreement. In addition, a top police official was shot and injured in February, an attack that authorities have blamed on Irish Republican Army dissidents opposed to the peace process.
“The enemies of peace will not prevail,” Biden said. “Northern Ireland will not go back, pray God.”
Get daily updates from WHYY News!