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DUBLIN — Laurita Blewitt knows how deep Joe Biden’s Irish roots run. When the White House contacted her to help put together a family lunch ahead of the then-vice president’s 2016 visit to Ireland, she struggled to limit the crowd.

“He’s loads of cousins living here, in and around Ballina, and that’s just one side of his Irish family,” said Blewitt, 37, a fourth cousin who lives near the County Mayo tourist town along the River Moy.

“I gave the White House the names of the Blewitts closest to me but, my God, another 50-odd more could have been invited,” she recalled.

Today, a pop-art mural of a beaming Biden greets visitors to Ballina, one sign of growing excitement here that the United States might soon get its most Irish-American president since John F. Kennedy.

Declaring ties to Ireland has often been a vote-winner in an America where, according to the last census, one in 10 people — 33 million — claims Irish descent. Ever since Kennedy’s landmark visit here in 1963, a succession of U.S. presidents have crossed the Atlantic to highlight the Irish branch of their family tree.

While President Donald Trump’s only apparent tie to Ireland is his ownership of an oceanside golf resort in County Clare, Biden for decades has tied his identity to Ireland.

Ronald Reagan stopped by in 1984 to sup a pint of Smithwick’s ale in a pub in his ancestors’ native Ballyporeen, County Tipperary. That pub was dismantled 20 years later, soon after his death, to become a feature of the new Reagan library in Simi Valley, California.

After genealogists discovered an Irish great-great-great-grandfather, then-President Barack Obama visited the midlands village of Moneygall, County Offaly in 2011 accompanied by a hastily composed song, “There’s no one as Irish as Barack O’Bama.”

While President Donald Trump’s only apparent tie to Ireland is his ownership of an oceanside golf resort in County Clare, Biden for decades has tied his identity to Ireland.

His family tree reveals he is five-eighths Irish. His mother’s side is entirely so, drawing its lineage to the Blewitts of County Mayo and the Finnegans of County Louth on the Cooley Peninsula bordering Northern Ireland. A quarter on his father’s side can be traced to Ireland via great-grandmother Mary Jane Hanafee.

Irish roots

In 1987, before his first failed presidential run, Biden gave a lengthy interview to Irish America magazine. He described his ties to Ireland, including his Scranton, Pennsylvania upbringing in “an overwhelmingly Irish parish,” followed by a half-dozen unpublicized trips with family to Ireland during his time as a U.S. senator.

“My great-grandmother Finnegan was the only one who could read Gaelic. She used to read letters in Gaelic for those who could not read the letters from home, and she’d write back in Gaelic for them,” he told the magazine. “My grandmother used to say: ‘Remember, Joey Biden, the best drop of blood in you is Irish.’”

At that time, Biden didn’t have a full grasp of his Irish ancestry. That was solved by genealogist Megan Smolenyak, who also had tracked down Obama’s Irish ancestor.

She found that Edward Blewitt left Ballina with his wife, Mary, and their eight children bound for New York, arriving in January 1851. Among them was 18-year-old Patrick, Biden’s great-great-grandfather, who settled in Scranton.

Owen Finnegan left the Cooley Peninsula and arrived in New York on May 1849, followed a year later by his wife, Jane, and their children.

Both families were fleeing the famine that killed 1 million people and spurred 2 million to emigrate. The two came together when Ambrose Finnegan and Geraldine Blewitt married in Scranton in 1909.

An image of U.S. Presidential candidate Joe Biden during his 2017 visit to his ancestral home of Ballina | Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images

This month activists from a new group, Irish 4 Biden, traveled to the Cooley Peninsula to launch their campaign urging Irish people to telephone their U.S. relatives with pro-Biden messages.

One of the locals, Eamon Thornton, recalled meeting Biden during his 2016 trip, when he visited the Kilwirra cemetery overlooking the Irish Sea where dozens of local Finnegans are buried.

“There were massive burials here in famine times. He visited the burial place of his great-great-great-grandfather. You could see he was genuinely moved to be there, touching the headstones of his ancestors,” Thornton said. “The truth is, we’re all related here if you go back far enough.”

Few relatives attended the public event this month, some citing the particularly strong COVID-19 infection rates along the border with Northern Ireland — and others the fact that, like many Irish Americans, they’re not Democrats.

A little of the ugliness prevailing in U.S. politics has seeped into Ireland, thanks to social media and the anonymity it affords.

“Ach sure, everyone would like to see a relation get into the White House. But I wouldn’t be a Democrat or Republican. I wouldn’t see the difference,” said Gerry Finnegan, 70, a third cousin of Biden and a retired miner who spent much of his life in Canada, Zambia and Indonesia but is now back living within a mile of Biden ancestral turf.

Irish in charge

In 2016, Gerry Finnegan sat beside the then-vice president on a barstool in his local pub, Lily Finnegan’s, showing him old family photos — some of which Biden said he’d seen before from his own household albums.

Despite the family connection, he said Trump “has his good points, despite the idiotic things he says.” He noted that many Trump administration figures have Irish surnames. “The Republicans are just as Irish as the Democrats, so the Irish run America either way,” Finnegan said.

Biden has many supporters in Ireland | Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images

Asked if he’d like to visit the White House if Biden wins, Finnegan sounded similarly nonplussed. “Sure, I’m too old and unfit for that sort of thing,” he said. “I’d send the niece.”

The Blewitts in Mayo, though, have already made a White House visit. “My brother and sisters were there, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins. I was lucky to sit next to him,” Laurita Blewitt recalled. “From the very first moment you could feel this real, genuine warmth to him. It was like I knew him all along. There was no awkwardness at all. He was so easy-going and relaxed.”

Biden particularly bonded with her mother Christina, who was suffering from cancer — much like his own mother and son Beau, who had died of brain cancer only the year before.

Biden became a behind-the-scenes backer that day of local efforts to build a hospice for cancer patients. That 14-bed facility opens in the County Mayo town of Castlebar next month.

“I know politicians in Ireland who I’ve met a hundred times and they wouldn’t remember my name. Joe is different. He’s talking to so many people every day. But he still remembers you and takes the time to connect” — Laurita Blewitt

Laurita Blewitt was invited to the White House the following January, when Biden received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Obama. After the ceremony, Biden took her aside and wrote a personal note to her mother.

“It was lovely. He told her: ‘I’m going to come back to see you. Keep the faith and keep fighting and we’ll chat when I’m back in Ireland.’”

Crowd-free visit

Within months he flew back to Mayo, met with the Blewitts and spent time with their mother, who was undergoing chemotherapy. He also officiated at the ground-breaking ceremony for the hospice.

“We spent part of the day just walking around Ballina, revisiting all the places he’d been the year before, but this time without all the crowds. Joe was wearing a baseball cap and nobody quite recognized him, which he loved. He just talked to people like he was a particularly knowledgeable tourist.”

When Biden visited her mother, “he talked in great detail about her treatment, obviously reflecting his own terrible experience with the disease. She felt he was the only person in the room.”

Christina Blewitt died last year. Biden sent his condolences. He promised to return as soon as he could.

Joe Blewitt, a local plumber and relative of Joe Biden | Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images

“I know politicians in Ireland who I’ve met a hundred times and they wouldn’t remember my name. Joe is different. He’s talking to so many people every day. But he still remembers you and takes the time to connect,” said Laurita Blewitt, who also travelled in February to Nevada to canvas door to door for Biden during the Democratic primary.

A little of the ugliness prevailing in U.S. politics has seeped into Ireland, thanks to social media and the anonymity it affords.

After Laurita’s brother Joe, a local plumber, added a pro-Biden message to his work van — “Joe Biden for the White House and Joe Blewitt for your house!” — a Twitter image of it gained traction. Soon, his phone was bombarded with hostile messages from apparently U.S.-based Trump supporters.

“People were sending him crazy Trump memes and shouting down the phone at him,” she said. “I don’t know if Trump instigates this or if this is just the society we’re living in now. But it’s just so nasty. It’s the opposite of Joe.”



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