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Wednesday 17 January 2018

There's no show like a Joe show as Biden finds roots

Bidens come in search of family roots and leave with a much longer Christmas card list

US Vice President Joe Biden meets waiting crowds in the streets of Ballina yesterday.
Photo: Colin O’Riordan
US Vice President Joe Biden meets waiting crowds in the streets of Ballina yesterday. Photo: Colin O’Riordan

Caroline Crawford, Nicola Anderson and Kevin Doyle

It was the kind of 'full house' that genealogists can usually only dream of. US Vice President Joe Biden came here in search of family roots and left with a much longer Christmas card list.

Take his fifth cousins once removed: Leinster rugby brothers Rob and David Kearney, for example. The Bidens are very keen to catch up with them.

Jimmy Biden, the Vice President's brother, explained how they had been told of the link by a genealogist that morning.

"I need to track down these Kearneys. Tell them that Jim Biden, the Vice President's brother is trying to track them down," he said in what turned out to be something of a public appeal.

"My son is going to be playing rugby at university so I'm going home, I'm going to get on the plane and track these guys down," he said, quipping: "I understand that they're quite good."

Jimmy explained how the visit was "very, very important" to the family and "as you get older it becomes more important."

They had planned this trip with Beau, the Vice President's son who died last year at the age of 46 from brain cancer, he explained. "It's a very emotional trip."

In Ballina, they picked up almost 30 new cousins, posing for a gigantic family portrait, beams all round.

"My family has gotten bigger," a clearly overwhelmed Vice President called out.

"By the way, the Bidens are moving back."

The response was an uproarious 'hip, hip hurray'.

"I have enjoyed my day and my whole family has. My brother and my sister and my daughter," said Joe.

Caught by the folksy mood, he told of how his mother, Jean Finnegan would say: "Remember Joey, you are defined by your courage and you are redeemed by your loyalty."

"This is loyalty," he said, turning around and gesturing towards his new - very extended - family.

"They are all going to come to Washington to see me."

The day started off with a trip to see President Michael D Higgins at Arás an Uachtaráin.

"I'm writing a letter," laughed Mr Biden as the President glanced over his shoulder to see what lengthy prose he was inscribing in the visitors' book.

"As President Kennedy said when he made his historic visit to Ireland in 1963, 'Our two nations, divided by distance, have been unite by our people.' I would add: 'We are united by the hearts and souls of our people'," wrote Mr Biden.

Then he took the US Airforce plane, the Charleston, landing at Knock Airport to be greeted by 100 local schoolchildren.

He literally jogged across the tarmac to them.

"Come and see me in America in the White House. Who wants to fly back on Air Force Two?" he called, much to everyone's delight.

At Ballina, they stopped the 30 car-long snaking cavalcade at Convent Hill and the Biden clan got out and walked the plain little street where their ancestor, Edward Blewitt, left in 1851.

In all, they were the Vice President, his brother, Jimmy, sister Val, daughter Ashley and five grandchildren - including Hunter (10), Beau's son.

Historian Dr Ciaran Reilly from Maynooth told Mr Biden about the horrendeous conditions in Mayo during the Famine, with 30pc of the population wiped out.

Mr Biden was horrified, not realising quite how bad things had been, said Dr Reilly.

His great-great-great-grandfather Edward Blewitt had been an overseer of Public Works for Famine Relief and would have contributed to saving "thousands of lives," Dr Reilly told him, adding: "You should be very proud of him."

Further up the town, lined with people, they met Mona Curry (92), who Mr Biden dubbed The Queen of Ballina, calling his entire family over to meet her.

She had known the Blewitts going back generations.

The Vice President stopped to sign the cast of a delighted Conor McCarron (14).

The young student also obtained Enda's signature - but it was the signature of RTE's Teresa Mannion that he was truly delighted with.

"I might put it up on eBay," he declared.

Some people got impatient and took matters into their own hands.

"Come on Joe! Get over here!" shouted Caroline Morrow, on the opposite side of the street.

The Vice President's interest was piqued when she called: "There's no show like a Joe show" and he crossed the road to give her a kiss.

She later admitted that really she had meant that there was no show like a Joe Dolan show. She had a kiss from him in her day too, she remembered with triumph.

Sinead Quinn, who also lost her husband to cancer, turned out to greet the Vice President and share her experiences with him.

The mother of three children under the age of six said she had followed the work of Mr Biden and his blue ribbon campaign and was delighted that he had chosen not only to travel to Ireland, but Co Mayo.

"I lost my husband two years ago, his first anniversary was actually around the time that Joe's son Beau died.

"I told him that we had been bereaved by cancer, I said I appreciated all he is doing and that I am aware of the work he is doing through the blue ribbon campaign."

Mr Biden kissed her on the forehead and told her he had been in her circumstances, having lost his first wife at a young age, "so he understood."

Laurita Blewitt, whose father Brendan is the one of Mr Biden's closest living Irish relatives, had lunch with the Vice President at Heffernans bakery.

"We have been waiting so long for today. He chatted about his family and we chatted about our family.

"We've known about the connection for eight years, since he was elected, and we've been in contact for the last few months but this was the first family meeting," she said.

He said it was "a very emotional trip for him because of Beau," she added.

Enda Kenny compared the visit to the Kennedy family's pilgrimage to Ireland.

There was a trip to Enda's constituency office in Castlebar, decked out with the stars and stripes and a portrait of Obama peering out from the top window.

The party finished the day with a hooley in Matt Molloy's famous pub in Westport - where the Chieftains put on a rip-roaring show for the returned son of Mayo, finally fulfilling a life-long wish.

Irish Independent

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